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Chinook Run Predictions May Climb

Barry Espenson, Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 10, 1999

An anticipated increase in the fall chinook run size over preseason forecasts has, ironically, the potential to make fishers up and down the Columbia River unhappy.

Tribal fishers are entitled to catch 50 percent of the harvestable surplus fall chinook that enter the mouth of the Columbia River under court-negotiated management agreements based on treaty rights.

Under terms of a management agreement reached in U.S. v Oregon negotiations this year, non-Indian sport and commercial fishers are allowed an 8 percent impact on the largest component of the upriver fall chinook population -- the brights bound primarily for the Hanford reach.

The agreement says that, if the run size increases to the point it limits the chances of tribal fishers getting their 50 percent share, allowable non-Indian impacts on upriver brights could be reduced to a minimum of 6 percent. The treaty fisheries would then be allowed to absorb those additional bright impacts.

The overall impact limit on upriver brights, 31.3 percent, is used as a measure of the impacts on the run's Snake River wild component, which is listed under the Endangered Species Act. The agreement reached for this fall season sets impact limits for both tribal and non-Indian fisheries on both on the Snake River fall chinook and listed Snake River steelhead.

The treaty harvest allocation is based on the combined tule-bright fall chinook run. The ESA impact limits are based on the upriver bright portion of that run. So, since the tule run is of shorter duration, the percentage of brights in the total catch increases as the season continues -- as do the perceived impacts to listed chinook. Under the current agreement the tribal fishermen might breach the chinook ESA threshold before they harvest their full allocation.

The 1999 run will almost certainly surpass expectations.

"If the run is normally timed, we're looking at maybe 230,000" fall chinook as counted at Bonneville Dam, according to Bill Bosch, chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee formed as part of the U.S. v Oregon process.

"But in my opinion (the run) is a little bit early," Bosch said, meaning more fish had passed Bonneville on a certain date when compared to a historic average. A closer estimate might be 210,000, compared to the preseason forecast of about 170,000 chinook, he said.

"Tules (Bonneville pool hatchery fall chinook) are at or a little bit below" the preseason forecast and Mid-Columbia and upriver brights are considerably more numerous than forecast. Bosch estimated that as many as 160,000 to 170,000 brights (combined upriver and Mid-Columbia) could make their way past Bonneville this year.

TAC will update the run forecast today (a date when normally two-thirds of the annual chinook run has passed Bonneville) and again at the end of next week.

"Within the next 10 days it will sort itself out," Bosch said of the final verdict on this year's fall chinook run. The peak of the run has already passed Bonneville when nearly 16,000 fish were counted. Daily counts have since dropped below 5,000.

Patrick Frazier of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would offer only a range prior TAC discussions of the run updates -- a 40 to 70 percent increase over the preseason forecast.

"The bright run is significantly larger than the preseason forecast," Frazier said. How big depends whether the daily dam counts continue to decline or secondary peaks develop as has happened often in the past.

The increases would bring fall chinook runs near or slightly above recent yearly averages. But the counts will stay well below strong runs from the late 1980s, Bosch said. The peak daily run in 1988 was 24,000 on Sept. 11. A total of 290,000 fall chinook were counted at Bonneville that season. The top daily count in 1987 was 39,000 when 336,000 were counted during the season

"What it means is we lose commercial fishing opportunities" if the states' allowed impact is reduced, said Steve King, statewide salmon fishery manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. If non-Indian impacts approach their upriver bright limit, whether it is 8 percent or something less, chinook gillnet fisheries would not be considered.

The sport fisheries' impacts will be re-evaluated next week, King said.

The Buoy 10 sport fishery has already closed with about 10,000 chinook in hand. As of Thursday, 6,700 fall chinook had been caught in the mainstem fishery below Bonneville Dam. State agencies expect to be able to allot 9,000 chinook for that fishery.

"We think we can let the mainstem fishery go at least through the weekend," King said.

The first of two scheduled in-season run size updates were being prepared today (Sept. 10) for presentation to the Columbia River Compact. The Oregon-Washington panel reviews run status and the impact of past and ongoing fisheries in considering commercial fishing seasons in the river. Expected today was a proposal for a tribal fishery in Zone 6 above Bonneville Dam.

"At this point I think the preferred option would be 4 1/2 days," said Mike Matylewich, manager of the fisheries management department for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. As of Thursday tribal officials were also still evaluating the latest run size and catch information. The four Columbia River treaty tribes are now amidst their second fishery. The first was Aug. 31-Sept. 4 and the second between Sept. 7-11.

The tribal fishers netted 17,200 chinook in that first fishery or slightly less than they had projected during the first fishing period. They caught only 1,540 steelhead during the period, slightly more than half of their projection, Bosch said.

Bosch said a number of factors might be contributing the low steelhead catch. Because they are listed under the ESA, impact limits for Snake River wild A and B steelhead can have the effect of limiting the catch of fall chinook they share the river with. So fishers avoid the steelhead if they can. That and the fact that steelhead market prices are low leave little motivation to pursue steelhead.

Tribal fishers also face a dilemma in pursuing the fall chinook. Catching tules does not subtract from the bright impact limits. But the market for those Bonneville hatchery tules has been depressed, dropping to as low as 5 cents per pound on the commercial market.

"You'd have to catch a ton of fish to break even," Bosch said. The upriver and Mid-Columbia brights, on the other hand have fetched as much as 60 cents per pound commercially and up to $2 per pound in roadside sales.

"For the guys the money fish are the chinook," Bosch said.

Barry Espenson
Chinook Run Predictions May Climb
Columbia Basin Bulletin September 10, 1999

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