To-Date Spring Chinook Returnsby Barry Espenson
Lower Columbia River commercial fisheries tightly restricted both in time and geography were approved Thursday by Oregon and Washington officials despite concerns about crowded fishing conditions and a certain wariness about the size of the spring chinook run.
Four-hour fishing periods are scheduled Monday night at Youngs Bay near Astoria and the river's mouth and at Blind Slough a few miles upriver. The fisheries are in so-called "select areas" where hatchery-produced spring chinook juveniles are released from net pens with the express purpose that they would serve as commercial, and sport, catch on their return as adults.
Such terminal fisheries are intended to minimize the catch of returning wild or other unmarked salmon that are headed for other points in the Columbia/Willamette/Snake River system.
The lower Columbia River non-tribal fishing season is restricted by an overall 2 percent limit on the "take" of upriver spring chinook -- those bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville Dam. The wild Upper Columbia and Snake portions of that run are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Commercial fishers are allowed a 0.8 percent impact while sport fishers get 1.2 percent. The commercial share is further split with 0.6 percent saved for mainstem fisheries, 0.1 for the select areas and 0.1 percent as a management "buffer" against exceeding the overall limit.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Steve Williams approved the select area fishery despite his concerns, and those of sport fishing interests, that impacts to-date might have to be ratcheted upwards. That could happen not only because of additional harvest but if the overall run is smaller than anticipated.
The preseason run forecast was for a return of 360,700 upriver spring chinook to the mouth of the river -- which would be the second largest since record-keeping began in 1938.
But through Wednesday, slightly more than 2,000 had been counted crossing Bonneville Dam.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Cindy LeFleur said that, based on the recent 10-year average, about 7 percent of the year's total count on average would be recorded by April 7. The range during that 10-year period is from as few as 1 percent to as many as 20 percent (last year when a run dominated by 5-year-old fish reappeared early) of the overall run would have passed Bonneville by April 7.
Impacts for fish harvested to date are based on the preseason forecast. The mainstem fisheries have netted 86 percent of the 0.6 percent allocation. The select area fisheries are projected to have consumed as much as 21 percent of the 0.2 percent fishery/management buffer allocation through through the upcoming fishery. A smaller run would mean those numbers represent higher impacts.
The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association's Liz Hamiton said that if the 1 percent figure for the latest run timing during that span was used to extrapolate a 2004 total it would mean the 2004 upriver run would be 200,000 adults, not 360,700 as expected.
ODFW and WDFW reminded her that the total downriver sport and commercial harvest -- about 20,000 to-date -- would have to be added to the total since the preseason estimate is of returns to the river mouth.
"If the run size does get wrenched down, my concern is that it wouldn't come out of the sport side," Dan Grogan said of the eventuality that the commercial harvest pushes past its impact limit. The upriver run size estimate will not be updated until late April when a sufficient number of the big fish have passed Bonneville.
Williams characterized the count thus far at Bonneville as "paltry." Williams represents ODFW's director on the Columbia River Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries. Bill Tweit is the WDFW director's representative to the two-state panel.
"Obviously the run size is on everybody's mind," Tweit said. But he said it is too early to forsake the preseason forecast in making fishery decisions.
"It's unnerving but all we know at this point is the preseason forecast," Tweit said. The forecasts are compiled in a scientifically sound basis, in large part on the presence of jacks in last year's count.
"Jacks are a reflection of ocean survival in their first year," he said. A certain number of the immature fish return each year as 3-year-olds with the majority of their broodmates normally returning a year later.
LeFleur said the predictions were never exactly right on the number "but usually were pretty good on the magnitude" of the run.
She said the lower river sport fishery has improved of late. Catch rates during the first few days of April were comparable to last year when the upriver run ultimately totaled 208,000 adults.
"We know there's some pretty good abundance in the river," LeFleur said. But for some reason they're not steaming upriver and over Bonneville's fish ladders. Some speculate that the large numbers of seals and sea lions that have wandered in-river this year could be affecting the run, preying on salmon below Bonneville, and around sport and commercial fishers.
Columbia Gorge businesswoman Sheilla Cannon said she had heard reports of people "having salmon taken right out of their hands" by seals.
Both Tweit and Williams hesitated before agreeing to set the select area fisheries sought by the gillnetters. The Blind Slough select area will be nearly doubled during late April "spring" select fisherieswith the addition of the Knappa Slough area. The Youngs Bay fishery will be restricted to about 40 percent of the normal area, according to the ODFW's John North.
Commercial fisherman Jack Marinkovich had urged an enlarging of the fishing zones to avoid potential conflicts between fishers. The Compact resisted, however.
"We should not be in the business of setting up Bristol Bay type derbies," Tweit said of the annual Alaska free-for-all that has fishers continually jockeying for best position to harvest valuable salmon. State staff, and the Compact, insisted on the restrictions to try minimize the catch of upriver fish that might wander through despite potential crowding.
"It we go out and try this and it is a fiasco. I'll not consider another opening until the 22nd," Williams said. That is when the select area fishery was scheduled to resume.
The fish can fetch a relatively high price now, about $3.25 per pound. That price drops as the season progresses and a great supply is produced as a result of ocean troll fisheries.
State staff predict gill nets will snare from 600 to 1,000 chinook at Youngs Bay and about 350 at Blind Slough during the four-hour fishery. There have been 1,341 chinook harvested at the two locations through the last fishery -- March 21.
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