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Historic Chinook Fishing Season Allowed

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, June 18, 2005

Les Clark still remembers the last time he gillnetted for Columbia River summer chinook, back in 1964. By then, the legendary June "hogs" -- chinooks that sometimes exceeded 80 pounds -- had already faded into history.

But he managed to catch a 65-pounder in his net, hook it with a gaff and wrestle it into his boat.

Next Thursday, for the first time in more than four decades, Clark, 77, and other commercial fishermen will once again fish for the summer chinook. Washington and Oregon have scheduled three 10-hour night openings during next several weeks on the lower Columbia River.

Commercial fishermen are each expected to catch up to 3,200 salmon and will join recreational fishermen, who may take another 3,200 fish this summer. The states will monitor the runs and decide if additional openings will be allowed later this summer.

"It's historic, and means an awful lot to what's left of the fleet," said Clark, who lives in Chinook, Wash., near the mouth of the Columbia River. "But in 40 years, there has been an awful lot of them gone by the wayside."

The commercial opening results from a modest rebound of the summer Columbia chinook runs.

Unlike most other runs of Columbia basin wild salmon, the summer chinook were never listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. So, Washington and Oregon fisheries managers have authorized a catch that includes the summer wild salmon.

Fisheries managers are predicting as many as 62,000 summer chinook will return to the Columbia River this year, part of a recovery of the run in recent years. Between 1979 and 2000, the runs fell as low as 9,800 fish and never bumped above 24,000.

Above Bonneville Dam, tribal fishermen may take some 18,000 summer chinook, including several thousands by the Colville Confederated Tribes, who fish in northeast Washington..

The states set targeted harvest levels based on forecasts by biologists of how many fish will return to the river. But salmon can be notoriously unpredictable creatures. Earlier this year, the basin's run of spring chinook salmon -- as counted at Bonneville Dam -- came in at less than half the preseason prediction of more than 250,000 fish.

That has stoked concerns that the summer chinook runs might fall short of the preseason forecast.

"We'll be watching the dam counts like a hawk, and if it looks like the run isn't materializing, we will shut it [the states' harvest]down right away," said Bill Tweit, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

In a bygone era, most fish pushed past the Grand Coulee dam to spawn in the upper Columbia. These fish needed to be huge to survive and navigate that far up the river. In the 19th century, multiple canneries along the Columbia helped sustain the gillnet fleet that worked the mouth of the river.

The spring was always good for fishermen, Clark recalls, "but the summer was the backbone of the harvest and ran out over a longer time."

But after completion of the Grand Coulee dam in 1942, salmon could no longer make it to the upper reaches of the Columbia, and the big fish largely faded away.

When the gillnetter's harvest was shut down in 1964, Clark thought it would reopen in a few years. But the years turned into decades and the summer chinook, though never listed under the Endangered Species Act, did not recover. The gillnetters were allowed to fish only at other times of the year, primarily in the fall.

The declining runs also hit hard for the sport fisherman and the tribes, including the Colville, whose lands encompassed much of the remaining spawning areas in the Okanogan River. This was part of a broader decline that resulted in federal Endangered Species Act protection for the wild runs that spawn in the Columbia and Snake river drainages, a prolonged recovery effort that has cost the region billions of dollars.

The summer Columbia chinook runs began to rebound in the past few years, aided by some genetically selected hatchery fish allowed to spawn in the wild. Those fish are expected to compose about half of this year's run.

Washington fishery managers are confident that the planned harvest does not pose a threat to the stocks, Tweit said.

But some people are leery about resuming fishing of the wild chinooks.

"I think that they are taking a very risky approach to managing the run," said Steve Smith, a biologist who consults for the Colville tribe.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said her group suggested a selective commercial gillnet fishery that would have allowed fishermen to keep hatchery fish that are specially marked, but release other fish likely headed for wild spawning grounds.

As for Clark, on Thursday evening he will be unfurling his net on his favorite spot on the river. He doesn't expect a big haul. Probably a few fish between 15 and 30 pounds.

Clark said he never thought it would take this long to reopen the run to fishing. "I figure I'm just lucky to still be here," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton
Historic Chinook Fishing Season Allowed
The Seattle Times, June 18, 2005

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