Biologists Crunching Numbers to
by Bill Monroe
Oregon and Washington biologists haven't ruled out more fishing time for sport and commercial spring chinook salmon on the lower Columbia River.
But the likelihood of more sportfishing seems marginally better than for more commercial.
Conference telephone calls between the states are set for 1 p.m. Monday to discuss commercial fishing and 3 p.m. Wednesday to talk about sport catches and seasons.
"Until we have all the numbers in hand, we won't be able to determine whether there is room for additional fishing opportunities," said Chris Kern of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Kern does much of the statistical analysis for Oregon's Columbia River management team. Teams in the departments of both states advise deputy fish division chiefs, who make the final decisions.
As of Thursday, the last day of March, commercial gill-net catches stood at about half of what the fleet is allowed to take from upriver-bound Columbia and Snake River spring chinook. Through last weekend, sport catches were just three-quarters what the states expected by that time. Half of the allowable sport catch was anticipated to occur this past week through Monday's closure.
After sportfishing ends, Kern and cohorts will crunch the catch statistics Tuesday and Wednesday before the meeting. They'll determine whether enough available fish remain to allow more angling days. Meanwhile, test gill-nets will again be on the lower Columbia on Sunday to gauge how many and what kind of spring salmon are present (upper Columbia/ Snake or fish from lower tributaries such as the Willamette River). Those results will drive Monday's discussion and decision.
For the past few years, managers have held back a percentage of available fish as a hedge against far lower runs than predicted (about 200,000 predicted this spring for the upper Columbia and Snake). This year's 30 percent buffer will hopefully ensure an adequate passage over Bonneville Dam for treaty tribal fisheries, wild and hatchery escapements and upriver sportfishing.
Typically, the bulk of upriver salmon arrive in a wave over a period of a week or two, beginning late March or early April. That glut hasn't been noticed yet in the lower river, but Kern said it's still a bit early to say it's overdue.
Willamette-bound salmon, meanwhile, usually have a stronger start in March. Too soon to call that one as well, Kern said, pointing out high, muddy water and lower-than-normal temperatures through almost the entire month. The Willamette prediction is for more than 100,000 salmon.
"They may well be there, but no one has been able to get to them," he said.
The odds seem greater against a commercial extension than a sport because the gill-nets have a lower upriver quota to work with. That would be especially true if high numbers of salmon show up in either Sunday's test nets or the weekend sport fishery in the lower river. Managers don't want to risk overfishing.
The states wait until the first week or so of May, when salmon begin to surge across Bonneville Dam, then begin periodic revisions of the run forecast.
If it appears equal to or higher than predicted, both groups could get more time on the water later that month. If it's lower, the states can fall back on their 30 percent buffer and still be within safe harvest levels.
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