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Fewer Reach Salmon Perplexes Fish Officials

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, October 20, 2000

The Hanford Reach is missing some fish.

As the last fall chinook return to their spawning grounds, state fish managers are wondering why there seems to be fewer wild salmon in the Reach than in years past.

The answer probably is that unusually high numbers of fall chinook are crossing Priest Rapids Dam and heading upriver for parts unknown, rather than bedding down in the Reach.

"Nobody is quite sure what happened," said Joe Hymer, who tracks Columbia River fish for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's a little bit unclear why those fish did that."

On Oct. 17, just over 65,000 adult fall chinook had crossed McNary Dam. But almost half of those -- 30,500 fish -- swam past Priest Rapids Dam at the north end of the Hanford Reach.

Typically, Hymer said, only about 10,000 adult fall chinook would travel that far.

In other circumstances, fish traveling a bit father upriver might not be that big of a deal. But the stretch of undammed river above Richland supports the largest wild run of fall chinook on the Columbia, and keeping the Hanford Reach stock healthy is seen by many as a key to learning how to help other stocks that aren't doing so well.

The situation certainly has the attention of anglers who are frustrated by a slower-than-expected fall season on the Reach.

"Is anybody really looking out to protect this run?" asked Dana Mueller, Tri-City angler and habitat chairman of the Eastern Washington Steelhead Foundation. "The track record for (fish agencies) says probably not. Every single wild run we've had in the Northwest has been devastated, and they are just going to do it to this one, too."

Jim Cummins, a state Fish and Wildlife Department biologist in Yakima, suspects the situation may be explained partially by chinook that passed Priest Rapids but will eventually "fall back" through the dam to the Reach.

And the Corps of Engineers said Thursday that a recently discovered 12-inch gap in the fish ladder at McNary Dam may mean not all the returning salmon were counted this fall. Corps officials said the problem has been fixed and inspections done at other agency dams to make sure the counting system works.

While a counting problem may help explain why the McNary numbers aren't quite as high as predicted, it doesn't explain what the fish are doing above Priest Rapids.

Fall chinook typically spawn in the main stems of rivers rather than tributaries, and they prefer to nest in running water rather than dam-formed lakes. That means they typically choose the Reach. "There is just not much flowing water in the Columbia River once you get above Priest Rapids Dam," Cummins said.

The goal -- which has been met for nearly two decades -- is to get 45,000 adult fall chinook past McNary Dam. With more than 65,000 crossing McNary this year, biologists such as Hymer aren't panicked about the Reach situation.

"We still think we have a healthy population there, even if the natural spawners were not as high as they have been in recent years," Hymer said. "Right now, it's not alarming us, but it is something that needs further investigation."

Later this year, state officials will count chinook redds, or nests, to see how they compare with years past. And they will keep a close eye on the Priest Rapids hatchery, which chinook also seem to be passing in their attempt to get upstream.

Cummins said he's concerned about getting enough fish back to provide hatchery broodstock. "Even though there are a lot of fish out there, ... they don't seem to be coming back to the hatchery creek like we would expect them to."

Mike Lee
Fewer Reach Salmon Perplexes Fish Officials
Tri-City Herald, October 20, 2000

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