Some 2012 West Coast Fish Runs
by Bill Rudolph
California biologists are still crunching numbers, preparing for next month's report from the Pacific Fishery Management Council that kicks off its annual ritual for setting the coming year's salmon harvest season, but some numbers have trickled out already and point to near record runs in some northern California rivers, thanks to a turnaround in ocean conditions a few years ago.
The Shasta River, a tributary of the Klamath, saw nearly 30,000 fall Chinook return, the highest tally since 1962. Late-summer water releases likely helped that mob of returning salmon as well. In 2011, only 213 fall Chinook returned to the Shasta.
Counts for the nearby Klamath River, the state's second largest river, are still in progress, but CDFW regional state biologist Sara Borok told NW Fishletter that it's shaping up to be one of the best in decades even though it might not reach the preseason estimate of 381,000.
Initial reports from the Iron Gate Hatchery, located below the lowest dam on the Klamath, show that nearly 39,000 adult fall Chinook were counted last year. That's the largest number since 2000, when about 70,000 returned to the hatchery, said hatchery manager Keith Pomeroy. About 218,000 fall Chinook returned to the entire Klamath in 2000. In 2011, the hatchery saw about 8,500 returning adults, with the entire fall run estimated at about 189,000 fish--a far cry from 2005's 65,000 fall Chinook return.
By relying on a jack-count methodology that works only some of the time, California biologists have made some pretty poor predictions in recent years. However, 2011 jack counts encouraged them to anticipate a big turnaround in the state's Chinook runs. Last March, Chuck Tracey, the PFMC's salmon management staff officer told NW Fishletter that 2011's 74,000 jack count in the Sacramento River was the highest since 1970, tripling the 2010 counts, when they began to rise again after California fall Chinook runs rebounded from their recent lows between 2007 and 2009. In 2007, only 2,100 hatchery and wild jacks were counted.
In the Klamath Basin, where fish numbers don't always track well with the Sac, 2011 fall Chinook jacks added up to 74,223 fish, with nearly 63,000 counted in natural spawning areas. Tracey said that was the highest jack return since 1978 for the Klamath. The 2011 jack count on the Shasta was better than 11,000, the highest since 1939.
Further north, Columbia Basin harvest managers last week released their annual spring report that fleshed out last year's fisheries information and formalized their 2013 pre-season predictions announced last December. With far lower jack counts in 2011 than 2010, they expect about 141,000 upriver spring Chinook. In 2010's huge jack count to deal with, they had predicted more than 300,000 would return, but little more than 200,000 fall Chinook actually showed up.
Nearly 60,000 springers are expected in the Willamette River. Last year, about 83,000 were predicted and 65,000 were counted by the end of the season. The Upper Columbia summer Chinook run is expected to come in at 73,500 fish. That's better than last year's 58,000-fish return but more than 91,000 had actually been predicted.
Another good sockeye year is predicted with 180,500 expected at the mouth of the river. Last year, nearly 516,000 returned, beating the 462,000-fish prediction. About 1,250 Snake River sockeye are expected to return as well. Fall Chinook estimates are still in the works, but the run is expected to be better than last year's return--somewhat less than the 466,500-fish prediction.
A new report from the Washington state salmon recovery office says there are positive signs that the last 10 years of spending on habitat restoration is showing some improvement. Though no specific fish numbers are included, the report says these "non-statistical observations" were compiled by that state's salmon recovery regions from data provided by WDFW. According to the report, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Recreation and Conservation Office have distributed $860 million for salmon recovery from state, federal, and local sources since 1999. "The annual funding topped $109 million in 2008 and has been declining since."
The report said Snake River fall Chinook and Hood Canal summer chum are increasing in abundance. "Slightly increasing" are middle Columbia steelhead, Lake Ozette sockeye, Snake River spring and summer Chinook, and Upper Columbia steelhead.
Five other stocks are hanging tough, Lower Columbia spring, fall Chinook, and steelhead, Puget Sound and Snake River steelhead. Lower Columbia chum, Puget Sound Chinook, and Upper Columbia spring Chinook abundance are showing "slightly decreasing" trends, but there is not enough data to determine the status of Lower Columbia coho.
It takes some digging to get into the report's particulars, and shows some of the problems recovery plans must deal with. Lower Columbia fall Chinook, which are holding their own, have met or exceeded abundance goals since 2000, says the report, but it is "likely that the majority of the spawning population is hatchery production which would result in abundances of natural origin fish that are well below the Recovery Plan abundance goals set forth in the Recovery Plan."
The report also acknowledges the role of ocean conditions. "Changes in ocean temperatures, which switch from cooler to warmer every decade, can affect salmon survival in the Pacific Ocean. A sharp reduction in ocean survival occurred for both Hood Canal and Strait of Juan de Fuca summer chum stocks beginning in the late 1970s and persisted, with a few, sporadic upticks for some stocks, until the late 1990s. A strong shift toward favorable ocean conditions occurred for both Hood Canal and straits summer chum salmon beginning with return year 2001. This generally has persisted since then with a few sporadic years of lower survival seen for several subpopulations during this period. It appears that we are still in this pattern of favorable ocean conditions."
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