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Surprises Keep 2003 Fish Run Counts a Guessing Game

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 18, 2002

The 2003 return of so-called Columbia River "upriver" spring chinook salmon will be strong, but just how strong is anyone's guess. The fish bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville Dam have this far proven to be quite unpredictable, despite decades of data chronicling behavioral trends. The upriver fish generally have arrived at the mouth of the Columbia on a later schedule than their Willamette River brethren. But this year that pattern was flip-flopped with a big surge of three-ocean or 5-year-old upriver fish arriving from mid-March to mid-April.

That phenomenon foiled the plans of Washington and Oregon fishery officials who scheduled commercial fisheries in the lower Columbia that were designed to target Willamette River spring chinook. The result was a large catch of upriver fish, stocks that are subject to strict harvest impact limits. Snake River and Upper Columbia portions of the run are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The commercial seasons were ended after just three days on the water.

The 4-year-old upriver returns were expected to comprise nearly three-quarters of the run according to preseason estimates. But an updated forecasts now expects close to half the run to be 5-year-olds. But, because of the surprises so far, no one's willing to predict how big or small the 4-year-old component might be.

"The fish have not cooperated," Steve King said during a hearing this week to consider whether a mainstem commercial sport fishery could continue. The sport season was shortened from 7 to 4 days per week as of April 1 because sport anglers too were rapidly cutting into their upriver impact limit. Much of the late March effort had been concentrated in the Columbia River gorge above Portland, where 100 percent of the catch was upriver chinook.

The fishery was saved when fishery officials increased their run estimate, from the preseason estimate of 145,400 to a new forecast of 174,000 as counted at the river mouth. That is considerably better than the recent 10-year average runoff 122,177.

Already 85,717 adults have been counted passing Bonneville Dam through Thursday. Add to that the more than 10,000 upriver chinook caught by sport and commercial fishers and the total is already near 100,000.

The flow of chinook through Bonneville has showing fits and starts over the past week with counts as low as 2,123 Thursday and as high as 7,996 Tuesday.

At this early date it is hard to compare the timing of the run with past years. Normally the run peaks later in April and in early May.

Fishery officials say that the 2001 run was the earliest timed on record. It was also the largest upriver return since counting began in 1938 with 416,500 fish. Through April 17, 2001 the total count at Bonneville was 198,574 or about half the total run. Daily counts ranged from 12,000 to 20,000.

Last year's return was the second largest on record, 295,100. But the timing of that run was later with a count of 1,567 on April 17 and a total of 29,879 adult fish to that date. Daily counts in 2002 increased dramatically during the fourth week in April.

The upriver run size has bounced around. The 1985 to 1993 period saw run sizes from 60,000 to 121,000 fish after poor runs in 1979-1984 (49,000 to 71,000), according to a joint state staff report.

The record low returns were in 1994 and 1995 at 21,100 and 10,200 adults respectively. The 1998 and 1999 returns, primarily the offspring of the record low years, included only 38,400 and 38,7000 adults respectively. Run sizes have been dramatically improving since 2000 when the count rose to 178,600.

Some are concerned because the 4-year-old class returning this year are the survivors from the brood that either swam and were transported around dams via barges downriver during 2001's drought. Because of the lack of water, most fish passage strategies for in-river migrants such as spill were forsaken.

The NOAA Fisheries estimated that only 4 percent of the steelhead that migrated in-river down the length of the Snake/Columbia in 2001 survived. The spring chinook estimate was 27.6 percent survival that year, substantially lower than the 43 to 59 percent survivals of the previous six years.

Tribal fish managers have long feared that the stress of barge transportation can have a negative effect on salmon survival. The 2003 4-year-old return could be a test of that theory, having traveled to the ocean in 2001.

"We're kind of in a wait and see mode. You don't want to wish you were right at the expense of the fish," said Steward Ellis, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission staff.

The 4-year-old numbers are picking up. In March, the sport catch was about 34 percent 4-year-olds, according to Patrick Frazier of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. During the first five days in April, the catch included 57 percent 4-year-olds. The information was derived from coded wire tag data.

The four lower Columbia River treaty tribes have nearly completed their ceremonial fishing and could soon begin proposed commercial fisheries in the mainstem reservoirs above Bonneville. Reports from the field are that the fishing has been good, with most of the catch the bigger 5-year-olds.

"The fish are big enough that they (the tribal fishers) are getting tired of lifting them around," Ellis told the Compact jokingly.

The fish are making their way upstream. The cumulative count at McNary through Thursday was 23,498 adults spring chinook. The count at Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River was 2,470 through Thursday. Counts at both projects have increased greatly in recent days. Lower Granite is the last dam the chinook pass before entering Idaho.

The spring chinook headed up the Snake River are primarily bound for Dworshak and Rapid River fish hatcheries. Chinook salmon returns from a particular brood normally span three years. One-ocean fish are mostly small males called jacks while adult salmon return after two or three years in the ocean.

Idaho's anglers have begun venturing out with their spring chinook salmon season opening April 12 on the mainstem and north fork of the Clearwater River. The season on the lower Salmon River and Little Salmon River will open April 26.

"This run is early, and the majority of them are three-ocean (meaning they have spent three years in the ocean since migrating downstream)," said anadromous fisheries coordinator Bill Horton, "and that means BIG fish." Horton said anglers should expect to see fish from 36 to 44 inches, maybe longer, and weighing 20 pounds or more. The state record, caught in the Salmon River in 1956, was 54 pounds.

Limits will be two per day, six in possession and 10 for the season. Although seasons could close earlier for biological reasons, the closing date for the lower Salmon River is June 15. For the mainstem and north fork of the Clearwater River is set at July 6; and the Little Salmon River will close Aug. 3.

A major change in the rules this year is that any salmon snagged anywhere in the body must be immediately released. Previously, salmon snagged in the head could be kept. Recent seasons have had repeated instances of anglers trying to use snagging as their only method, rather than actually fishing.

Young chinook produced in the wild during the big adult return to Idaho in 2001 have long since begun flooding downstream.

Biologists estimate that as many as 51,900 female spring and summer chinook may have spawned in Snake Basin tributaries in 2001 compared to the 1990-2000 average of 4,750 females. Most of them spawned in the Salmon and Clearwater drainages. As a result, the spring and summer chinook smolt (juvenile salmon ready to move to the sea) migration this spring may be the highest recorded in the past 11 years, according to the IDFG.

The estimate of natural chinook smolts that will arrive at Lower Granite Dam is 1.7 million, compared to an average of 827,000 chinook smolts for the previous 11 years (1992-2002). Full hatcheries mean that lots of hatchery smolts will also be heading downstream.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Surprises Keep 2003 Fish Run Counts a Guessing Game
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 18, 2002

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