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Gillnetters Near Impact Limit;
Fishing Halts for Now

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 2, 2004

Washington said yes, and Oregon said no to additional Lower Columbia River mainstem commercial harvest opportunities in the near term after an unexpectedly high catch during a Monday-Tuesday outing that pushed gill-netters near their allowable upriver spring chinook impact limit for the year.

The standoff means there will be no more fisheries on spring chinook, at least for now.

That 10-hour overnight stint produced a harvest of 4,924 salmon with 2,364 of them being from lower river origins and 2,757 being from hatcheries and spawning grounds upriver from Bonneville Dam. The commercial fishers can keep and sell only fin-clipped hatchery fish. They also caught and released 1,662 unmarked fish, three-quarters of which were "upriver" spring chinook.

The large catch -- 1,000 more than fishery officials' most optimistic prediction -- resulted in the mainstem commercial fishers gobbling up a big share of their allowable impacts on the upriver spring chinook return. Before Monday the gill netters catch to-date represented about 55.3 percent of their impact limit. That impact shot to 83.67 percent by Tuesday morning. The fishers total estimated landed catch (saleable fish) to-date is 13,292 spring chinook.

That did not leave enough room for even a limited mainstem fishing opportunity in the next few weeks in Steve Williams' opinion. He represents the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director on the Columbia River Compact, which sets commercial fishing seasons.

"I'm not ready to take the risk at this time," Williams told Bill Tweit, the WDFW director's representative to the two-state Compact. Williams wondered at the agencies' ability to control even a limited harvest and keep impacts below desired levels. Tweit and staff had suggested that a fishery could be carried out with a short limit on fishing time, and on the number of fish they could keep.

Williams said he didn't want to get the "black eye" of breaching the impact limit if undiscerning nets sweep in too many fish. Even releasing fish results in impacts because it is assumed that 18.5 percent of those fish don't survive. The impact limits are described in an interim management agreement between the states and tribes that expires after 2005. The limits, intended to protect salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act, are endorsed by NOAA Fisheries.

"We are somewhat at odds," Tweit said. He said he favored allowing a fishery of short duration with a limit of perhaps 10 fish. That would allow the fishers an economic opportunity, and allow the fishery managers the opportunity to see how the fish limit "tool" might be used.

"This is just a very large part of what I consider to be the commercial fishery on the lower Columbia River," Tweit said. The spring chinook and sturgeon are the biggest mainstem contributors to the region's fish industry.

Williams said that it was not his intention to "leave impacts on the table." He said that fisheries could be considered in May when fishery officials have a better idea of the overall size of the run. The preseason forecast was for a return to the river mouth of the river of 360,700 upriver spring chinook and 109,400 Willamette spring chinook. Such an upriver count would be the highest since record-keeping began in 1938.

That return, however, is lagging with only 348 adult fish counted at Bonneville through March 28. That's about 30 percent of the average count for that date, based on an average run size with an average run timing as measured since 1987. That average through March 28 based on big and small returns through the years is 1,328 chinook. The run normally hits its peak abundance in late March or early April.

"I would think in the next week or so the run will start building at Bonneville," said Stuart Ellis, a Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist. Member tribes will propose mainstem fisheries above Bonneville after numbers swell. He admitted that "everyone is a little nervous" but a late run timing was largely expected. The upriver run is expected to be comprised of 94 percent 4-year-old fish, which normally finish their journey behind their older kin.

"The data supports the theory -- the 4-year-old fish aren't here yet. It's a little early for them," Ellis said.

The WDFW's Cindy LeFleur noted that on average only about 1 percent of the upriver spring chinook run will have reached Bonneville by March 28 so there is much time to make up ground.

"I'm not worried. It's way too early," she said.

The IDFG's Kathryn Kostow said that estimates were that the balance of the mainstem commercial fishers' impacts would be consumed with a harvestable catch of about 1,800 to 2,000. That's based on the current run forecast. If the return were to number only 300,000, the impacts will already have been surpassed.

"We can't do a legitimate update until late April," Kostow said. By that time enough fish will have entered the river to reduce the analysis error margin to appropriate levels.

Jim Well, a fisherman and member of Salmon for All, told the Compact that, if mainstem fisheries are not approved, gill netters should be allowed to work Select Areas near the river mouth. The main targets there are hatchery spring chinook that were released from net pens as juveniles so that they could be harvested there on their return with minimum impacts to other chinook. Some upriver fish do venture through the areas, however.

Wells said the fishers wanted to take advantage of a salmon market now bringing $3.25 per pound for the chinook. He said that price would fall to $1.25 per pound by May.

The Compact plans to meet next week to consider that option.

CBB Staff
Gillnetters Near Impact Limit; Fishing Halts for Now
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 2, 2004

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