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Bonneville Posts Best Day for Chinook

by John Miller, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - May 6, 2005

Officials still in holding pattern

BOISE, Idaho -- Fish counters at Bonneville Dam posted the highest numbers of the season for spring chinook salmon, with 6,065 swimming through the first Columbia River fish ladders they encounter as they head inland from the Pacific to spawn.

The Thursday tally, released Friday, was more than double Wednesday's total of 2,542.

The next-best day was April 25, when the count was 4,149. Spring chinook, also called kings, can weigh as much as 50 pounds and are prized by anglers.

"We finally got a decent number," said Cindy LeFleur, policy coordinator for the Columbia River Compact, made up of the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife departments.

The Columbia and Snake rivers are closed to sport fishing in both states. So far, this year's run has been a disappointment. Forecasters initially anticipated as many as 254,000 fish but more recent projections ran as low as 70,000.

Now, as numbers appear to be improving, state, federal and tribal officials in all three states are monitoring the run closely. The number of chinook that pass through Columbia and Snake fish ladders over the weekend could have consequences for the sport fishing industry, worth hundreds of millions to state economies.

"If we're lucky, we can make some decisions, but it's still pretty tight," said LeFleur from her offices in Vancouver, Wash. "I'm just hoping these numbers will stay up there - or climb. That's possible, considering we've had late runs before."

Scientists are unsure why numbers are down. In 200l, 437,000 fish were checked through Bonneville Dam, and their offspring should be returning this year.

Some environmentalists blame dams and low water flows for impeding the progress of fish. About 10 percent of young salmon may get killed in the turbines that transform the flows into hydroelectricity.

With early indicators down, Idaho closed a 23-mile stretch of the Snake on Wednesday. Tribes with treaty rights to salmon agreed Tuesday to suspend all gill-net fishing, including for ceremonial and subsistence purposes. In April, Oregon and Washington halted commercial and sport fishing on the Columbia.

Next week, scientist Pete Hassemer of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will brief the Northwest Power and Conservation Council - a coalition of state officials, utility representatives and conservationists from Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana - about the runs. The council meets Tuesday in Walla Walla, Wash.

It was his agency that closed the Snake River earlier this week, from the Southway Bridge linking Lewiston and Clarkston, Wash., to the Heller Bar boat ramp. The goal was to protect salmon runs in tributaries including the Salmon and Grande Ronde rivers.

When that stretch of the river was closed, just 851 fish - less than 1 percent of the 2001 run - had passed through the locks at the Snake's Lower Granite Dam.

Since then, 1,100 spring chinook have come through, including Thursday's season-high 448, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"To me, the next couple days are really critical, indicating what the run will be," Hassemer told The Associated Press.

Most of the fish coming through the Bonneville Dam are likely headed for the Snake River, he said. But even if the numbers improve this month, the final count will probably be below original estimates, he said.

And although fisheries remain open on most of the Snake River and its tributaries in Idaho, they'll probably be less productive than in recent years, Hassemer said.

"Until we see those fish showing up, we can't make our projections," he said.

John Miller, Associated Press
Bonneville Posts Best Day for Chinook
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 6, 2005

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