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Gillnetters Return to Water, but Fishing Season Gloomy

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 21, 2003

The lower Columbia River's commercial fishing fleet was scheduled to return to the water today to salvage what the fishermen can from a fishing season turned gloomy.

The gill-netters are expected to catch from 2,500 to 3,500 spring chinook and be able to keep 1,400 and 1,700 spring chinook salmon during a 10-hour fishing period approved Wednesday by the Columbia River Compact. The fishers must released chinook that don't have an adipose fin clip that shows it is a hatchery fish.

If that harvest is realized, it would essentially end the commercial season with a total saleable harvest of little more than 2,000 spring chinook out of a potential harvest of more than 20,000 surplus hatchery spring chinook.

Both Mother Nature and the best calculations of the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments have served to rein in gill netters during a year with a relative abundance of surplus hatchery spring chinook.

What has hurt perhaps the worst is the timing of spring chinook's return to the river. A six-day fishery approved for mid- to late February planned to target what are usually the earlier arriving Willamette River hatchery chinook. Instead, during the first two 16-hour fishing periods the fishermen saw that 78 and 85 percent of their catch was upriver spring chinook. Under an agreement between states, tribes and federal agencies, non-tribal fishers can have an overall 2 percent impact on upriver spring chinook.

The stocks bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds upriver from Bonneville dam include populations such as the Upper Columbia and Snake river stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Willamette wild spring chinook are listed too, but a 15 percent impact is allowed.

Because of that upriver-dominated stock composition, the commercial fishermen had consumed more than half of their upriver ESA "impact" limit after only two days, and the final four planned fishing days were cancelled. The total catch on Feb. 17 and 19 was 1,057. Of the catch, 551 were not marked with a fin clip and were -- because they are potentially of wild, listed origin -- released.

The fishermen have not fished since, waiting for more Willamette spring chinook to return.

During that early season the fishermen were allowed to use nets with a minimum 8-inch net size. The large mesh nets are more effective at "gilling" the big spring chinook but do less harm to the smaller steelhead, which often swim right through. The wild steelhead are also ESA listed and are classified as a sport-only fish.

State officials have assumed for this year that the mortality for the chinook released from the large mesh nets is 50 percent. With the high encounter of upriver fish, the impact total mounted quickly. With only 506 fish kept, the commercial fishers had used up .305 percent of their .59 impact. The 2 percent non-tribal share includes a 1.1 percent allotment for sport anglers and .3 percent for fisheries above McNary Dam and as management buffer.

If the fishermen on Friday do catch 1,700 keepers, it is estimated that the cumulative upriver impact would be .561 percent -- just shy of the .59 limit. If some impacts remain, Compact members said they would consider more commercial fishing in the Columbia mainstem below Bonneville in late April or May after most of the upriver run has passed. Today's fishery is from Kelley Point at the mouth of the Willamette River near Portland down to the mouth of the Columbia.

"Everyone's broke in this community right now," Jim Wells, an Astoria, Ore., based commercial fisherman, testified. "This is a travesty."

The fishermen had expected much better this season -- the third straight year in which commercial fishing has been allowed on prized spring chinook. The spring chinook populations have surged during the past three years, thanks in large part of favorable ocean conditions that have seemed to improve the fishes' survival. Commercial fisheries had not been allowed since the 1970s as spring chinook numbers ebbed to as low as 10,200 upriver fish in 1996. The upriver count in 2001was 416,468, the largest adult return to the Columbia River on since record-keeping began in 1938. It was followed by a count of 295,100 fish last year -- the second highest count on record.

This year's preseason forecast is for an adult upriver return of 145,400 -- down but still the fourth highest count since 1973. In addition, fishery officials predicted that 109,800 Willamette origin fish would return. With that forecast, the commercial fishers could have taken as many as 17,500 surplus Willamette chinook.

The commercial fleet last year in an initial full-fleet test of smaller mesh nets (5 inches maximum) kept 14,238 spring chinook and released 14,489 in what was the largest commercial spring chinook harvest since the 1970s. The total harvest included 8,237 Willamette and 5,242 upriver fish. The returns last year included 121,700 Willamette chinook.

Oliver Waldman of Salmon for All argued Wednesday, as did several commercial fishers, for a 16-hour fishery, as opposed to 10. Salmon for All's membership includes fishers, fish processors and other businesses and individuals. He said the expected harvest for the 10-hour fishery would mean that each boat would harvest about 12 or 13 fish total. At 20 pounds per fish, and $5 per pound, that would mean about $1,200 to $1,300 per boat in income.

"That doesn't even pay for the nets," Waldman said. The fishers had to buy the smaller mesh nets, 4 -inch, that are required in today's full fleet fishery. The smaller nets are less efficient chinook harvesters but cause less physical harm to the listed steelhead and chinook. It is estimated that 25 percent of the unmarked chinook released from the net will die.

The commercial fishermen have testified that the chinook mortality rates being used this year -- 50 percent for the large mesh nets and 25 percent for the smaller nets -- are based on limited and flawed data. A 10 percent rate was used last year when the smaller mesh nets were employed, but data from mortality studies caused officials to adopt the higher rates.

State, tribal and fishery officials have said that, because their limited chances to collect harvest/mortality data have come in the past two years, they want to manage the fishery conservatively to avoid incurring high impacts on listed fish. Mortality research being carried out again this year will add to the fishery managers' understanding of both steelhead and chinook mortality.

The commercial fishers also asked that, given uncharacteristically high early counts at Bonneville Dam, the agencies do an early run-size estimate update. Normally the agencies would do an upriver spring chinook update in mid- to late April, historically when more than half the run has passed.

"Until you know when it has peaked, you don't know the timing," said Patrick Frazier of the ODFW. Through Monday, 6,000 spring chinook had passed Bonneville Dam. That compares to 1,000 on March 17 of a year ago and only 45 by that date in 2001, which ended up being a record run.

The fishermen Wednesday said that's a sign that the run will be bigger than forecast, which would serve to lower the impact rate and allow them a bigger catch. That's not necessarily true, Frazier said. Most of the earlier arrivals are 5-year-old fish, which are expected to make up about one-third of the overall run. Even if the 5-year-old component is bigger than anticipated, the other more major components may not be.

"The assumption that we're going to have a large run size is not appropriate at this time," Frazier said.

Bill Tweit, the WDFW's representative to the Compact, said that the states must assure that the ESA-driven impact limits are not breached to ensure that fisheries can be planned in future years. The Compact sets commercial fishing seasons on the mainstem Columbia River.

"We're very concerned that an overage this year would make it difficult to make this a long-term fishery," Tweit said

Steve King, the ODFW's Compact representative, likewise endorsed the 10-hour fishery.

"I really want to stay with the one-tide fishery," King said. The fishermen had suggested a 16-hour fishery that would have included two low tides when the nets do their best work. Tweit and King feared the extra time would result in harvest in excess of the impact limits.

"I don't have a while bunch of data in front of me to tell me what would happen" during that second low tide, Frazier said. But he offered a ballpark guess of an additional 500 to 1,000 fish being handled -- more than enough to shoot past the impact limits.

A test fishery conducted Monday with the help 11 volunteer fishing boats indicated that the stock composition ratio had improved to include only 42 percent upriver spring chinook. The ratio of marked chinook to unmarked steelhead was more than doubled from the previous week to 5.6 to 1, meaning impacts to listed steelhead should be lessened. State agency staff estimated that the cumulative wild winter steelhead after today's fishery would be as much a 0.592 percent, about 37 percent of the impact limit.

More fish seem to be in the river as well with the catch rate jumping from 1.7 fish per drift on March 10 to 3.7 fish per drift on March 17. The catches per drift during the Feb. 17 and 19 fisheries were .4 and .5 fish.

Sport fishers may face similar worries about a premature end to their fishing. After a slow February during which 9,600 angler trips were made and only 432 fish were caught (223 of those were released), fishing has improved. Anglers made 22,500 trips to the river from March 1-17, keeping 1,747 chinook during that time and releasing 884. Because the catches were 100 percent upriver fish in the early going and 90 percent upriver fish in March, sport impacts have already risen to 17 percent of their allowable total. The best fishing has been in the area just below Bonneville Dam, which assures a high upriver chinook encounter rate.

"The impact rates are trending way ahead of last year," Frazier told the compact. Again, the unusual stock composition has thrown the trends off with upriver fish arriving early.

Both Tweit and King both stressed that the sport fishery, which normally doesn't really build steam until spring break in late March and early April, must be monitored closely. If need be, rules changes may be necessary to slow the sport harvest.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Gillnetters Return to Water, but Fishing Season Gloomy
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 21, 2003

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