It's Never Too Early
by Allen Thomas, Columbian staff writer
It's only October, but Washington and Oregon fishery officials already are looking ahead to the 2005 return of the glamour salmon of the Columbia River, the spring chinook.
Official spring salmon forecasts will not be ready until Dec. 15.
But Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said she anticipates a decent run of at least 200,000 spring chinook destined for upstream of Bonneville Dam.
This year, the forecast was for 360,700 upper Columbia-Snake spring chinook, but the actual return was only 193,565.
Historically, the forecasts have been accurate within about 15 percent. Never before has the prediction missed by the 47 percent that happened in 2004.
LeFleur said biologists still don't know what went askew.
"We checked all of our numbers,'' she said. "Did we miss something? Did we add a zero to the jacks somewhere that we shouldn't have? We doublechecked all that stuff and couldn't find any mistake in our actual prediction.''
Craig Burley, regional fish manager for Southwest Washington, said one hypothesis is that ocean survival conditions deteriorated between the time the jacks returned in 2003 and the adults arrived in 2004.
The ocean maturation of spring chinook works differently than fall chinook, said Pat Frazier, assistant regional fish manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"One of the interesting things about spring chinook is that the maturation schedule is determined by growth rate,'' Frazier said. "They have what they call trigger sizes. So, if a fish grows extremely fast, gets to a certain size, it's going to come back as a 3-year-old. It's parents may be a pair of 5-year-olds, but it will come back as a 3-year-old.''
That can work in reverse too, he said.
"When it grows extremely slow, it will wait longer and come back as a 5-year-old. You can have a shift in the ocean. The possibility is now, all of a sudden, next year we have a bunch of 5-year-olds. I'm not guaranteeing that. Ocean growth rates do affect spring chinook, while with fall chinook it's more of a hereditary situation.''
Curt Melcher of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had no preliminary estimate for the 2005 return to the Willamette River other than to say it will be "respectable.''
In 2004, the forecast was for 109,400 Willamette spring chinook and the actual return was a record 141,000.
Although the upper Columbia run was below expectations, there still were 156,000 angler trips with a kept catch of 23,700 spring chinook and a total economic benefit of $20.6 million, LeFleur said.
The commercial fleet kept 13,500 spring chinook with a total economic benefit of $1.6 million.
The sport season lasted from Jan. 1 through April 30 downstream of Interstate 5 and March 16 through April 21 between I-5 and Bonneville.
Spring chinook forecasts to the upper Columbia and Snake rivers can not be updated until the run peaks in late April at Bonneville Dam. By that time, the fishery is largely complete in the lower Columbia.
In 2004, sport fishing between Bonneville and McNary dams closed on May 6, before it barely got going, LeFleur said.
Spring chinook seasons will be adopted Jan. 28 at the Water Resources Education Center, 4600 S.E. Columbia Way.
Between now and then, biologists will examine 2004 catches by section of the Columbia, considering possible ways to start fishing under conservative regulations, then liberalize if the run shows as predicted.
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