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This Year's Fall Chinook Retrun Highest Since 1938

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 6, 2002

The tally of 474,000 adult fall chinook at Bonneville Dam during the summer and fall of this year is the highest since counting began in 1938, and figures to be one of the higher overall returns to the Columbia River in more than a half century.

With nearly 40,000 jacks counted at Bonneville as well, the total upriver fall chinook count swells to 514,000, also the best count on record. Jacks are smaller salmon that return to freshwater after only a year in saltwater.

The last time the overall upriver fall chinook return to the river mouth -- as opposed to the count 146 miles upriver at Bonneville -- was better was in the 1940s. From 1940 through 1948, the return to the river mouth ranged from 557,800 to 760,700 (except for a count if 447,200 in 1942).

Fewer of those 1940s fish made it to Bonneville because of the more liberal harvests of the day in the lower river. The commercial harvest alone between the river mouth and Bonneville was as high as 452,700 in 1947 -- nearly as high as this year's dam count. The dam located is about 30 miles upriver from Portland and is the first in the federal hydrosystem that the fish encounter on their way upstream to spawn.

Restricted by impacts limits intended to protect salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act, sport and non-Indian commercial fishers combined to catch 86,300 chinook in the lower river -- some bound upriver and others to hatcheries and spawning grounds below Bonneville Dam.

That was a huge improvement, however, over the dismal 1990s. For example, commercial fishers caught nearly 36,000 fall chinook in the lower Columbia this year. Their catch during the period from 1992 to 1999 ranged from a high of 18,600 to a low of 900. The catch was still low in 2000 at 10,000 fall chinook but started to climb in 2001, 21,500.

The grand total return to the river this year, including lower river fall chinook stocks, was 714,600 -- the third-best total since 1948.

Federal, state and tribal officials were cheered by the news, and cautiously optimistic.

Biologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service have said good ocean conditions contributed to the strong numbers. Approximately 269,000 spring chinook and 127,000 summer chinook were also counted at Bonneville Dam in 2002. The upriver spring chinook run this year, as counted at the river mouth, was the second largest on record; the summer run was the largest since 1960.

Officials with the Federal Caucus -- the nine regional federal agencies responsible for natural resource protection and salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin -- said focused regional efforts, led by federal, state, tribal and local entities, are also contributing to the rising numbers of returning spring, summer and fall chinook.

"Good ocean conditions have contributed significantly to the good run, but we've had good ocean conditions in the past," said Steve Wright, administrator for the Bonneville Power Administration. "This year's outstanding return of adult fish is a good indication that the investment we're making in the Columbia River and tributaries is paying off for salmon."

The Northwest Power Planning Council's chairman, Larry Cassidy of Washington, likewise said "there is a whole series of events" contributing to recent years' surge in Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead returns. He cited federal research that shows the survival of juvenile salmonids down through the federal hydrosystem has been improved since the last of the dams was constructed in the 1970s. Snake River survival, for instance, is estimated to be as great now, with eight dams in place, as it was when only four dams were in the fishes' path.

Improved ocean conditions are a likely factor "but you have to get the fish to the ocean first," Cassidy said. He said he felt that the money used to improve passage was being efficiently spent.

BPA, which markets the power produced at the dams, funds a big chunk work done to improve fish survival through the hydrosystem and to mitigate for the impacts to fish and wildlife from the construction and operation of the dams. It has obligations rooted in the Northwest Power Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, tribal treaties and elsewhere.

A NWPPC report released in September estimates BPA's fish and wildlife expenditures at $6 billion since 1978. That figure ballooned drastically in 2001 when it was estimated that revenue generating opportunities foregone because of hydro operations intended to help fish and the need to purchase replacement power on a superinflated market cost $1.5 billion.

The report also estimates BPA has spent $1 billion through the NWPPC's fish and wildlife program and nearly $600 million on passage improvements during that time frame.

"Every component of the 4H's (hydrosystem, habitat, harvest and hatchery) is important in the success we are having," Cassidy said.

Coincident with the new century's rising Columbia Basin salmon populations was implementation of a 1999 agreement relative to the Pacific Salmon Treaty, Cassidy said. The agreement forged between the United States and Canada called for all chinook salmon fisheries -- sport and commercial -- to be managed based on abundance, rather than the fixed-catch quotas that applied previously. That allowed those fisheries off the west coast of Vancouver Island, northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska to be ratcheted down to protect depleted chinook stocks, including some of those Columbia Basin runs that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Steelhead, protected under the ESA like fall chinook, also are making a great showing. This year's total count at Bonneville is over 480,000, the second largest Bonneville Dam count on record. Last year's return of 630,000 was the largest.

Last year's adult spring chinook return to the Columbia also established a record (since 1938).

Tribal officials too stress that the pleasing returns of the past two years were produced by a combination of natural forces and human actions.

"A big pat on the back should go to Mother Nature," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The organization represents lower Columbia River treaty tribes.

"But the strong adult return is the result of doing a lot of things right in 1997, '98 and '99," Sampson said. "We got good habitat protection for spawning and early rearing protection via the Vernita Bar agreement." That agreement outlined operations for upstream hydro projects that helped protect spawning and rearing habitat in the Hanford Reach, home of the basin's healthiest naturally spawning fall chinook population.

Sampson also said "the tribes fought for, and got, flow targets met due to great, then good, water years in the late 90's."

"We've also supplemented the fall chinook run with 5-10 million juveniles annually," Sampson said. "That program is paying off nicely throughout the basin."

He stressed that "that's the important thing to remember, big counts at Bonneville in one year, or even two, doesn't mean success everywhere. We need good returns distributed over a broad geographic area, and over extended time."

"With two good years in a row and the possibility of a third, we will need to continue to vigorously address all the causes that affect the salmon's life cycle, including harvest, habitat, hatcheries and hydropower operations," said Bob Lohn, NOAA Fisheries Northwest regional administrator. "While we have a long way to go, these returns show we are making progress."

A joint staff/TAC report released last week notes that this year's combined fall chinook, coho, and summer steelhead return to the Columbia River, 1.6 million adults, is the fourth largest since 1970. Last year's 2.3 million fish return was the highest total, followed by 2.5 million in 1986 and 1.8 million in 1988. The final in-season fall "fact sheet" is produced by the staffs of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife in cooperation other state, federal and tribal participants on the Technical Advisory Committee. TAC, among other tasks, produced run forecasts for the various stocks of Columbia River fish.

Average returns for adult fall chinook in the Columbia River have been around 203,000 for the past ten years, making this year's record especially encouraging, officials said.

"For the second year in a row, we're getting very good news from the fish counters at Bonneville Dam," said Brigadier General David Fastabend, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The count at Bonneville Dam includes both wild and hatchery fish, with hatchery fish comprising about eighty percent of the total in a typical year.

There is appear to be a trickle-up effect too. The fall chinook count at the fourth dam in the chain -- McNary -- was the second largest since the structure was completed in 1954 at 141,625. The counts at Ice Harbor (15,383) and Lower Granite (12,229) were the greatest in those dams' history. Ice Harbor, the first dam on the lower Snake above its confluence with the Columbia and fifth in the hydrosystem chain, was completed in 1968. Lower Granite, the fourth dam encountered on the lower Snake, was completed in 1975.

Many of those Snake River fish are the product of supplementation efforts referred to by Sampson.

Scientists in the region are amidst an effort to find out how oceanic and climatic regime shifts affect the survival of Pacific salmon and steelhead that are born and spawn in the Columbia River basin.

"There is no doubt" that changes in ocean and climatic conditions affect the salmon's saltwater habitat, said NOAA Fisheries scientist Ed Casillas. It is, at this point, impossible to evaluate the impact those changes have on fish populations or what facets of that change cause that impact.

The immediate future does look bright.

"The jack counts give us hope that next year may be yet another year of strong returns," Lohn said. Considered to be bellwethers of their spawning class, the jack counts are an early indicator of the next year's run size.

"The 2002 jack count of 40,000 points toward a good year in 2003. This is particularly encouraging in view of the low water conditions young salmon faced during their migration to the ocean in 2001," Lohn said.

The joint staff report notes above average jack returns this year, though the counts are much lower than the ones that produced the strong adult fall chinook returns of 2001 and this year. About 391,000 adult upriver fall chinook returned to the mouth of the Columbia River last year.

This year's jack count included 36,364 "brights" and 3,843 "tules." The 10-year bright jack average is 32,000. The jack bright count in 2000 was 50,300 and then jumped to 65,800 2001 -- a signal that the 2000 adult return would be big. The tule jack 10-year average return is 2,800. Returns in 2000 and 2001 were 5,100 and 8,600, respectively.

"Next year's run looks to be above average," said Patrick Frazier of the ODFW. "We're going to go downhill somewhat but not a long way downhill."

And although fishers did not harvest near as many fish as in the distant past, they had a good year. Non-tribal commercial fishers hauled in nearly 36,000 chinook from the lower Columbia between early August and the end of October. That's the most in more than 10 years.

Sport fishers bagged 19,000 chinook near the river's mouth at Buoy 10. That's the third largest catch on record, although less than half the record of 42,100 in 1987.

Sport fishers took some 110,800 "angler trips" on the lower river between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31 to record a record catch of 21,200 chinook.

Both the sport and commercial fishers stayed within prescribed ESA limits, as measured in estimated impacts on the "upriver bright" portion of the run. A management agreement between the two states, lower river treaty tribes and federal agencies sets an overall impact limit of 31.29 percent. That is allocated 8.25 percent to non-Indian fisheries and 23.04 percent to the tribes.

The non-Indian portion is further split with sport fisheries getting 4.36 percent and commercial fisheries getting 3.89 percent. The non-tribal commercial fisheries exacted a light 1.78 percent toll while the sport anglers were just below their limit with a 4.18 percent impact.

State fishery managers took a relatively conservative approach in setting early commercial seasons, not knowing what kind of impact each fishing period would have on the fall chinook.

"The runs dropped off a little quicker than in previous" so the commercial fishermen were not able to make up that lost grounds.

"It's kind of bittersweet for the commercial guys," Frazier said. The harvest was the best in years, but well below those of the 1980s and prior.

The tribal commercial fishers also fell short of the impacts at 17.10 percent. But they got plenty of fish, the most since 1988 with 130,600 chinook caught in the reservoirs above Bonneville Dam.

Barry Espenson
This Year's Fall Chinook Retrun Highest Since 1938
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 6, 2002

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