the film

Willamette, Clackamas
Salmon Runs Looking Grim

by Bill Monroe, staff writer
The Oregonian, December 18, 2005

Get a grip, folks, because it looks as if the good old days are over.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released its prediction Friday for the 2006 spring chinook salmon run into the Willamette River.

Biologists expect just 46,500 adult springers in the Willamette and Clackamas rivers.

That's well under half of the 2005 prediction of 117,000; a run that materialized at just 60,600. If the same thing happens next spring -- and biologists are largely at a loss to explain the least-accurate prediction since they started the outlooks in the late 1970s -- there could be fewer than 20,000 springers entering the Willamette (and Clackamas) River.

That would be the lowest run on record, even lower than the 34,700 Willamette salmon in 1996 that resulted in severe fishing cutbacks.

That's a pretty long fall from a near-record run of more than 120,000 fish in 2003.

It gets worse.

The prediction for the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam is just 88,400 spring chinook next year.

That's perilously close to a low-threshold (82,000), at which significant limitations are enacted on commercial and sport fishing to protect upriver-bound Snake River salmon.

It gets worse.

The 2005 Columbia spring chinook return (106,900) was even further off prediction (254,100) than the Willamette's.

Extrapolate that into a 2006 actual, and, well . . . you don't want to know what might happen.

It gets worse.

Predictions for 2004 also were off target by nearly as much and, since they don't know why, biologists haven't changed the way they make the predictions. One bad year is an anecdotal accident. Two could be a trend. Three, if it happens again, could change the way managers have to make decisions.

"It's perplexing," said Curt Melcher, assistant administrator of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's fish division. "We don't have any answers."

Fish and Wildlife commission meetings in Oregon (Jan. 6) and Washington (Jan. 6-7) just got very interesting as policymakers debate key management agreements covering spring and summer chinook.

Commissioners will have to decide just how many of those all-important early Willamette springers to award to the general public through the gill-net fleet.

Melcher said he believes some sport fishing could be allowed in April, but it's hard to imagine any gill-net seasons beyond mid- to late-March at those numbers.

This also should accelerate behind-closed-door talks that have begun on newer, more efficient commercial harvest methods (traps, modern fish wheels, etc.).

In more than two dozen years of reporting and watching the Willamette River's (and thus Oregon's) signature salmon run, this is as gloomy a picture as I've seen.

It's not the sea lions' fault, by the way.

These figures are based on (formerly) predictable returns of prematurely maturing male salmon, called "jacks." They're too small to be caught and eaten by marine mammals.

Nor is it overfishing by the Alaska or Canada commercial fleets, whose catches and their origins are closely scrutinized.

There are a few bright spots.

Willamette River anglers, most of whom aren't accustomed to catching very many fish anyway, won't be shut down. Fin clipping hatchery salmon and releasing wild fish are paying off by keeping us on the water despite low runs.

Both states also have backed off on a pitch to allow more winter steelhead deaths in gill-nets.

Melcher himself is grasping for something, anything, to feel good about.

"Remember that our forecast models are not biased," he said. "We can just as easily over-predict as under.

"They've been so bad for the past two years that we might get one on the upside instead."

Bill Monroe
Willamette, Clackamas Salmon Runs Looking Grim
The Oregonian, December 18, 2005

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