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Slow Fishing, Building Run Allows Managers to
Extend Lower Columbia Spring Chinook Season

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 5, 2013

Oregon and Washington fishery officials Wednesday opted to extend the lower Columbia River season by six fishing days after eyeing a slowly swelling fish return, and the fact that anglers so far only have an estimated 1,572 upriver spring chinook salmon in hand that count toward an early season harvest limit of 4,900 fish.

That catch in the waters from Bonneville Dam downstream about 146 miles to Buoy 10 at the river mouth was accumulated after an estimated 57,370 "angler trips" to the lower Columbia River from the start of the season through today. The actual upriver chinook catch harvest through the end of March was 1,069; the April 1-5 projected catch is 503.

The season for spring chinook had been scheduled to close at the end of the day but was stretched through next Friday, April 12. The fishery will be closed for the day Tuesday to prevent interactions with the lower river commercial fleet, which is expected to have a one-day fishery April 9.

The 4,900 upriver spring chinook limit represents 70 percent of the total catch that would be allowed through the early spring season. The catch is limited by 30 percent of the overall allocation until the estimation of the run size is recalculated, likely in early May. That's when approximately 50 percent of the year's upriver spring chinook run can be expected to have passed over Bonneville. Dam counts are key to estimating the run size.

The 30 percent early season buffer is in place to assure the harvest does not surpass limits on the "take" of fish protected under the Endangered Species Act, given the fact that the actual return could be lower than anticipated.

The upriver run, made up of fish bound for hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds upstream of Bonneville, includes ESA-shielded wild Snake River and Upper Columbia spring chinook. The harvest totals include estimated post-hooking mortality of unmarked salmon, which must be released by anglers. Most hatchery fish, which are the harvest targets, are marked with a clipped adipose fin.

The overall estimated kept catch through today totals 2,139, which includes both upriver fish and chinook from the Willamette and other lower river tributaries.

The upriver catch represents about 32 percent of the recreational allocation prior to a run update.

"The season definitely got off to a slow start, but the bulk of the run is starting to move in," Ron Roler, Columbia River Policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said.

An unusually high abundance of Columbia River eulachon (smelt) in the river may have contributed to the lower catch rates, according to Kevleen Melcher, ODFW's assistant Columbia River fisheries manager. Effort and catch rates, however, have picked up the past week

The Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife staffs estimate that the six extra fishing days would at most result in the upriver catch total rising to 4,060, still only 83 percent of available chinook under the management scheme. That represents a kept catch/mortality next week of just under 2,500 upriver fish.

A more likely scenario would be about 2,080 upriver mortalities during the extension, according to an April 3 joint staff report prepared for Wednesday's state hearing to consider fishing possibilities.

"Assuming the favorable river conditions persist, catch rates are expected to improve in the upcoming week as chinook abundance increases," the report says. The lower river has unusual clarity for this time of year and water volumes are low with outflows from Bonneville Dam at 77 percent of the recent 5-year average.

Through Tuesday, a total of 402 adults had been counted passing over Bonneville's fish ladders. That number is well below the 10-year average for that date, but on par with the 5-year average. Upriver spring chinook runs in recent years have been later arriving than in the past.

And the counts are building. A 91-fish total was recorded Wednesday, the largest this year, to bring the total of 493. Of that total more than 300 were counted this past week.

"River conditions are very good for catching spring chinook salmon," said Guy Norman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. And April is the beginning of prime time for the arrival of upriver spring chnook, with on average 1 percent of the run having passed Bonneville by April 2 and that number rising to 50 percent by May 7 on average over the past 10 years.

The estimation of the next week's catch was deliberately conservative to make sure anglers don't shoot over ESA limits. The statistical modeling included higher than expected catch rates and a higher than expected percentage of upriver fish in the catch.

Norman, WDFW southwest regional director, said fishery managers from both states will watch the catch throughout the extension period and close the fishery earlier if necessary.

"We want to keep the fishery open through April 12 -- and perhaps even longer -- but we have to hold the catch within the guideline," Norman said. "The situation can change very quickly in April when the fish start moving upriver in large numbers."

Norman noted that fishery managers will also meet in May to consider whether potential changes in the run size will allow a late-season opening.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Pete Hassemer, and several of the anglers testifying Wednesday, encouraged the joint Oregon-Washington panel to spread out the fishing days so that harvests take a broader representation the returning fish. He said Idaho would prefer less harvest emphasis on the early part of the run, which could crimp its genetic diversity.

But Norman and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Steve Williams said fewer days now would not necessarily mean more fishing days later. Fishing at the peak of the fish run runs the risk of big harvests, and the potential breaching of ESA limits.

The lower river chinook fishery is now expected to be open through April 12 from Buoy 10 upstream to Beacon Rock (boat and bank) plus the Oregon and Washington banks only from Beacon Rock upstream to Bonneville Dam. Beacon Rock is roughly four miles downstream of the dam.

The bag limit is two adult adipose fin-clipped salmonids per day, only one of which may be a chinook.

Beginning Jan. 1 the Columbia River from the mouth upstream to the Oregon-Washington border will be restricted to barbless hooks when fishing for salmon, steelhead and trout.

Effective through May 15, the mainstem Columbia River will be open for retention of adipose fin-clipped steelhead and shad only during days and in areas open for retention of adipose fin-clipped spring Chinook.

After three years of strong spring chinook returns, this year's fishery is based on a projected run of 141,400 upriver fish, about 25 percent below the 10-year average. By comparison, approximately 203,000 fish destined for areas above Bonneville Dam returned to the Columbia River last year. The 2012 preseason forecast had been for a return of 314,200 upriver spring chinook.

Upriver fish make up the bulk of the catch, although spring chinook returning to the Willamette, Cowlitz and other rivers below Bonneville Dam also contribute to the fishery.

Salmon fisheries above Bonneville Dam are not affected by Wednesday's action by the two states.

Slow Fishing, Building Run Allows Managers to Extend Lower Columbia Spring Chinook Season
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 5, 2013

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