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Chinook Catching a Second Wind

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, September 19, 2004

The surge averts early closure of sport fishing
and allows tribes to continue selling the salmon

CASCADE LOCKS -- Against a torrent of frothy river water, a flash of dark fins darts over the concrete steps of the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam. The powerful salmon grabs the attention of Tanya Nisse of Ellensburg, Wash., who scans from above.

"Oh! There's one," she shouts and points for her three children to see.

"We are in awe of how big they are," says her husband, Tony.

After an enormous surge last week in the number of chinook charging past Bonneville Dam, fisheries' managers have revised their estimate of the run sharply upward -- avoiding a potential early closure of sport fishing for fall chinook.

The second wind also has allowed Native American tribes to continue gillnetting and selling salmon along the Columbia River, at Cascade Locks and other points. The tribal fishery will run from Monday through 6 p.m. Friday, with sales continuing through the weekend.

Fall chinook return from the ocean to spawn in the Columbia and Snake rivers in late August and September. Daily counts at Bonneville Dam, averaging 10,000 to 25,000 fish a day, climbed to 34,000 Tuesday. Fish and wildlife biologists now expect the fall chinook run to exceed 700,000, far surpassing the pre-season estimate of 634,000.

"It's possible that we might even upgrade the run a little bit more, if the dam counts hold up," said biologist Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an agency that manages fisheries for the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes.

The strong showing reflects a broad and continuing upswing in many Pacific salmon stocks during the past five years. Scientists think a cyclical shift in the ocean climate has made food more available and boosted salmon survival. Efforts to restore habitat and make the dams less deadly probably also have helped.

Some salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia Basin -- supplemented by tens of millions of hatchery-propagated fish released each year -- have reached the highest numbers since completion of Bonneville Dam in 1938.

Some fisheries, including the fall chinook, remain tightly regulated because of the potential to harm threatened or endangered stocks. Most of the fall chinook passing Bonneville Dam are hatchery reared. Many of the wild fish come from the healthy and abundant Hanford Reach. Some are Snake River fall chinook, a threatened stock with un uncertain future.

"The major constraint for our fall fisheries has been these Snake River wild fall chinook," said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In a positive sign, fish counts set a daily record a week ago at Lower Granite Dam, the uppermost dam with fish passing on the Snake River. The daily count, 976 fish, is the highest in a single day since the dam was built in 1975, Ellis said. That daily number also is more than the entire season total in all but 11 of the past 20 years.

"It's pretty impressive how many fish are coming up the river," said Sol Jacobsen of Canby, a lifelong salmon fisherman who is ecstatic the fishery remains open.

He spent most of Saturday on the river, under a cap of dark clouds, fishing with two buddies.

"They're jumping all over the place," said fellow fisherman Adam Veelle of Colton. The cold drizzle and lack of any catch didn't seem to dampen anybody's spirits, as if pursuing the fish and witnessing their relentless drive upstream were more than enough.

"I just think it's fascinating whether you catch any fish or not," Jacobsen said.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Chinook Catching a Second Wind
The Oregonian, September 19, 2004

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