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Wild Sockeye Run Largest in 17 Years

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 9, 2004

Summer Chinook Steady

A newly revised forecast says that the 2004 sockeye return to the mouth of the Columbia River will total 119,000 fish -- the largest return in 17 years.

The preseason forecast was for a return of 80,700 fish, the vast majority of which are unmarked wild fish bound for the Upper Columbia's Wenatchee and Okanogan drainages. A small fraction are sockeye from the Snake River stock that was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. The Snake River genetic strain is now kept alive by an ongoing captive broodstock program.

The sockeye forecast was upgraded to 115,000 on June 27 by the Technical Advisory Team, a panel comprised of federal, state and tribal biologist that advises ongoing U.S. v Oregon lawsuit management negotiations. TAC met Tuesday to push the forecast up again.

Numbers of sockeye, known for a fast-paced migration up the Columbia mainstem, reached a peak June 20 with a count of 8,008 at Bonneville Dam. The daily numbers built quickly through early June and have declined as rapidly from that peak. Daily counts in recent days have fallen to less then 2,000.

Still, through July 5 the Bonneville sockeye count was 111,396 with the tail of the run yet to come. TAC estimated that, based on early run timing, about 93.5 percent of the run will have passed Bonneville by that date.

A run of 119,000 sockeye would surpass a count of 116,623 in 2001. That is the only other time since 1987 (145,546) that the sockeye return has exceeded 100,000. The 2002 and 2003 returns were only 49,629 and 39,375 respectively.

The preseason forecast for Snake River sockeye is for a return of 154 to the mouth of the Columbia. That forecast has not been updated. Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials involved with the broodstock program estimate that as many as 100 could make it all the way back to the Stanley Basin and Redfish Lake Creek. That is based on the relatively large number of sockeye smolts that were released in 2002 from the hatchery program.

The smolt releases have shown the highest survival rate to the end of their life cycle. The largest return in recent memory, 257 adults, came following the release of some 70,000 smolts in 1998 -- the most ever released through the program, according to the IDFG's Dan Baker. Conversely, only three sockeye made it back to the Redfish Lake Creek weir last year. They were a part of a year class that included few smolt releases.

Baker says it will still be a few weeks before the first sockeye reach the weir. But things look promising. As of July 7 a total of 59 sockeye had been counted at Lower Granite Dam with more on the way. Last year only 12 sockeye were counted at the dam -- the eighth the fish must hurdle on their 900-mile journey to central Idaho. "Home" is approximately 400 miles upriver from that last dam.

The program also outplants fertilized eggs and "pre-smolts" and releases hatchery reared adults to spawn naturally. A certain number of the returning adults are also allowed to spawn naturally.

The "summer" chinook run does not, however, appear to be matching expectations. The forecast was reduced this week to 93,500. The preseason forecast was for 102,800 with slightly less than one-third headed for Snake River hatcheries and spawning grounds and the balance going to upper Columbia reaches. The count at Bonneville through July 5 was 69,657. Chinook passing Bonneville from June 1 through July 31 are counted as "summer" chinook.

A return of 93,500 would still be the third-largest total since 1961. The two largest were 129,012 in 2002 and 116,905 in 2003.

Still, by week's end the summer chinook counts remained steady, lifting the hopes of fishers that the forecast may be revised again -- upward. TAC meets again Monday, July 12.

"I think the forecast (93,500) is a little low," said Stuart Ellis, a Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission biologist and TAC vice chair. The fishing fortunes of CRITFC's member tribes hinge on that forecast.

The strong runs, relatively, of recent years have afforded more fishing opportunities on the Columbia mainstem than usual as compared to recent decades. Sport fishers have an ongoing chinook season. A decision last week made by Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife officials now allows the retention of sockeye as well.

Tribal gill-netters won approval of a summer chinook-targeted fishery July 23-25. The tribes were not allowed to sell commercially any of the sockeye they brought into their nets.

This is only the second summer since 1965, and second year in a row, that tribal commercial fishing for so-called June hogs has been allowed. Summer chinook populations had languished for decades after the majority of their historic spawning habitat in the upper Columbia was blocked off by construction of Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1941.

The upriver summer chinook are bound for production areas and hatcheries above Priest Rapids Dam on the upper Columbia and above Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. Wild summer chinook destined for the Snake River are listed as threatened -- a part of the Snake River spring/summer chinook "evolutionarily significant unit."

The June 23-25 outing was successful, bringing out 204 Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama fishing boats. They harvested 2,299 chinook and 470 sockeye, the latter of which went into their subsistence stores.

The tribes last week asked the Columbia River Compact for a second gill-net fishery for June 30-July 2 in an attempt to harvest their allotment or "allowable impacts" on the chinook and sockeye runs. A management agreement between the states, tribes and federal agencies allows the tribes a 5 percent impact on the upriver summer chinook run and a 7 percent impact on the sockeye run. The limits are imposed to assure the impact on the wild, listed portions of those runs is not too great. Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife officials sit on the Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries.

The surprising strength of the sockeye run enabled the Compact to approve a tribal request that sockeye caught in the gill nets be sold commercially. The tribes during that second 2 -day fishery harvested 2,115 chinook and 1,102 sockeye. An estimated 270 nets were counted during the fishery. Tribal fishers had through July 3 caught 480 chinook and 2,900 sockeye from platforms with hoopnets and dipnets.

When the gill net totals are combined with the catch from tribal "platform" fisheries to-date the totals swell to 4,893 summer chinook and 4,472 sockeye representing 5.2 percent and 4.5 percent impacts respectively on those stocks.

Given the new, less favorable summer chinook forecast, the chinook harvest total pushed the tribes past their agreed-to impact limit of 5 percent. But it leaves lots of room under the sockeye limit.

If the chinook forecast is pushed higher again, the tribes' impacts would likely fall below 5 percent. The tribal fishermen would like more time on the water to catch a few more chinook and sockeye, Ellis said. He said he felt another gill net fishery may be warranted because the impacts to listed summer chinook would be minimal.

"At least 99 percent of the Snake River summer chinook have passed Bonneville," Ellis said. The Snake River summer chinook historically migrate upriver much earlier than the upper Columbia stock. The tribes will continue to sell fish caught from platforms unless the rules regulating it are changed. The sales are approved through July 31.

Meanwhile, the non-tribal fishers were allowed a very rare shot at both summer chinook and sockeye last week in the mainstem from the bridge at Longview, Wash., to the mouth. The tribal fishers ply the mainstem reservoirs above Bonneville.

In 12-hour stints on June 30 and July 2 the non-tribal gill-netters managed to harvest 666 sockeye, 186 chinook and nine sturgeon. The sockeye catch represents a 0.6 impact on sockeye (0.9 was allotted for the fishery) and 0.1 percent on chinook (0.2 was the impact limit.

The non-tribal commercial fishers were required to release all non-adipose clipped chinook and fin-clipped sockeye (bluefish has learned that ALL sockeye could be kept). An estimated 49 percent of the chinook caught wre unclipped. Unclipped chinook have the potential to be wild, listed fish from the Snake River Basin. The smolts released from the sockeye captive broodstock are clipped.

In Idaho, sport anglers on July 3 faced the closure of chinook salmon seasons in the mainstem Salmon River and its South Fork as ESA impact limits were approached. The salmon seasons remain open on the Little Salmon River, the Lochsa River, the South Fork of the Clearwater River, on the Snake River from the Dug Bar boat ramp upstream to the Hells Canyon Dam, and the Boise River at Boise, where salmon were stocked in June but success has declined rapidly.v IDFG chief Steve Huffaker decided to use the director's discretionary powers to declare a conservation emergency and close the salmon fisheries in the Main Salmon River and the South Fork of the Salmon River.

"The biological reason for the closure is that we have taken the allowable number of listed summer chinook. I know many people and communities will be unhappy, but it is essential the department take its conservation responsibilities seriously," Huffaker said.

"We have had a long and very successful salmon season this year, and salmon fisheries elsewhere remain open."

Salmon harvest figures:

So far, anglers have spent 263, 357 hours fishing for salmon this year in Idaho

Barry Espenson
Wild Sockeye Run Largest in 17 Years
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 9, 2004

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