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Ecology and salmon related articles

Record Upriver Spring Chinook Run Expected

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 1, 2000

Columbia Basin salmon managers -- unused to dealing with bounty -- are smiling at preseason forecasts of a 2001 upriver spring chinook run that would be 30 percent greater than the best run recorded since counts began in 1938.

Fishery officials have projected that 364,600 adult upriver spring chinook, destined for hatcheries and tributaries to the Snake and Columbia rivers above Bonneville Dam, will return from their ocean sojourn. Such a return would be double the 2000 return and far surpass top previous return estimates -- 281,000 fish in 1955 and 280,400 in 1972. Both previous totals included adults and "jacks."

The upriver return has surpassed 100,000 only seven times in the past 20 years. The 2000 return totaled 178,600 with the next best return since 1980 being 125,500 in 1986. The upriver spring chinook run had hit all-time lows as recently as 1995 when only 12,600 returned to spawn. The 1994 run was 21,400.

The upriver spring chinook usually begin returning to the Columbia in March with the run peaking in April and early May. Forecasters expect the run to be made up of 4-year-old fish, an estimated 330,000, with the remainder being 5-year-olds.

As with generally improved 2000 runs, much of the credit goes to Mother Nature, according to Cindy LeFleur, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist and chair of the Technical Advisory Committee. TAC, composed of tribal, state and federal fisheries officials, gathers fisheries information for U.S. v Oregon, which negotiates harvest allocation and other issues.

"We had two good flow years in a row" when yearling spring chinook, now returning as adults, were migrating toward the ocean, LeFleur said. That likely eased their passage, improving survival and overall fitness as they entered the ocean.

"And the ocean turned around," LeFleur said, citing the general acknowledgement that ocean conditions encountered by the fish had improved, improving their survival chances. Improved passage for migrants through the system, as well hatchery innovations, are also credited for improving survival.

The projected salmon wealth presents special problems for fish managers. State and tribal harvest managers will spend the coming months making cases for their share of the allotted harvest. The harvests are limited by Endangered Species take prohibitions related to listed fish.

The Snake River spring/summer chinook "evolutionarily significant unit" was listed as threatened in 1992. The Upper Columbia spring chinook ESU was listed in 1999.

Last year a National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion set that take limit for threatened Snake River spring/summer chinook at 9 percent. Oregon and Washington requested 2 percent for their sport and commercial fisheries. The lower Columbia treaty tribes, in a separate document, asked for 9 percent.

NMFS officials urged the states and tribes to forge an agreement but when none came, the federal agency decided the harvest allocation -- 8.5 percent for the tribes and .5 percent for the states.

The states on Nov. 3 filed an incidental take permit application with NMFS asking again for 2 percent. The tribes intend to file for Section 7 consultation with NMFS through the Bureau of Indian Affairs but their document is not yet complete.

"If there's an increased run there should be increased opportunities," said Mike Matylewich, manager of the fisheries management department of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The tribes will "likely propose something larger" than the 9 percent take it requested last year, though probably not much larger, he said.

"We don't want to increase it to the point we compromise rebuilding" of listed populations, Matylewich said. "We're trying to be responsive to wild fish."

The development of the tribal document is taking time because it will delve into production as well as harvest issues, he said.

"We're going to have a lot of homeless fish," Matylewich said of the projected return, which will largely be hatchery-produced fish. The 2001 forecast includes 167,400 Snake River and 31,800 Upper Columbia spring chinook hatchery returns. The 2000 run included 39,800 Snake River and 21,800 Upper Columbia hatchery returns. Matylewich estimated that state and federal hatcheries that produced the fish need as many as 40,000 fish.

The fate of "surplus" hatchery fish not needed to produce the next generation became a big issue last year. Their dispatch, for use as foodstuffs, fertilizer and other things, brought protests from the tribes and the public who thought the fish should instead be steered back into the streams to spawn naturally.

State and federal officials restrict most such happenings because of the belief that the mixing of hatchery fish with wild, listed fish on spawning grounds can have negative effects on wild populations. Those impacts could include competition for limited habitat and the passing on of genetic characteristics to offspring that can make them less able to survive in the wild. NMFS biological opinions require hatchery operators to minimize those impacts.

The treaty tribes are mulling "what to propose for using those surplus hatchery fish," Matylewich said. They would like to see more of the surplus fish outplanted and allowed to spawn naturally in an attempt to rebuild depleted stocks.

The tribes in their Section 7 document will identify watersheds "where we think it's a practical thing to do, a reasonable thing to do," Matylewich said.

The 2001 spring chinook forecast projects that 39,300 listed Snake River fish will return, more that triple the 2000 count of 12,400. The highest count since 1979 was 19,141 in 1982 with a low of 1,829 in 1995. The expected 2001 return of Upper Columbia wild spring chinook is 6,300, up from 4,300 in 2000.

The 364,600 total includes an estimated 120,000 spring chinook not headed for drainages where they will not compete with listed fish. They include hatchery fish, as well as unlisted wild runs from the Yakima, Deschutes and John Day rivers.

The projections for the upriver summer chinook run are less optimistic. The run is expected to total 24,500, down from 30,700 in 2000. The Snake River portion of that run forecast at 6,100, up from 4,900 in 2000. The Snake River summer chinook hatchery return is expected to be 3,000 fish, down from 4,000 in 2,000. But the Snake River wild summer chinook run is forecast at 3,100, up from 900 fish in 2000.

The states have expressed interest in the "rejuvenated pursuit" of a long-term harvest and production management agreement to replace the 10-year plan that expired at the end of 1998. The parties to U.S. v Oregon have since had to work out agreements from season to season on issues such as harvest allocation. But a new long-term agreement has not been reached.

A Nov. 1 letter from the directors of the states' fish and wildlife departments to tribal leaders expressed the states' commitment achieving a new Columbia River Fish Management Plan.

"The previous CRFMP was based on a balance of specific harvest and production needs of the U.S. v. Oregon parties and represented a series of trade-offs to accomplish a fair plan," wrote ODFW's James Greer and WDFW's Jeff Koenings. "We believe that renewed negotiations, guided by our common concern for the resource and mutual respect for the needs of Indian and non-Indian citizens, will be successful in achieving a new agreement that we can all endorse."

The letter attempts to repair a schism regarding artificial production that has hindered negotiations.

"In particular, as a result of a misunderstanding -- for which we accept responsibility -- our policy of 'de-linking' production decisions from harvest negotiations was perceived as a hostile act," Greer and Koenings wrote. "Our intent, however, was merely to ensure that production decisions would be based on scientific judgements focused on rebuilding natural fish populations and the fisheries, and that those decisions would not be influenced by other factors."

"We did not mean to suggest that production decisions and harvest sharing agreements must be accomplished by separate processes or in separate documents."

by Barry Espenson
Record Upriver Spring Chinook Run Expected
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 1, 2000

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