Fishery Managers Allow Sport Retention Of Sockeye;
A record-setting surge of sockeye salmon over Bonneville Dam has given fishery managers the confidence that they can allow anglers to target the species in the Columbia River mainstem without sacrificing upriver escapement goals and impact limits.
The higher-than-expected sockeye counts at the dam in recent days were not high enough, however, to allow the non-tribal commercial fleet a shot at the burgeoning run.
Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife officials on Wednesday approved the retention of sockeye by anglers beginning Saturday in the mainstem from the Astoria-Megler Bridge near the river mouth upstream to central Washington's Priest Rapids Dam. Any retained sockeye will be considered a part of the daily salmon bag limit.
Sockeye retention had originally been prohibited over the course of the June 16-July 31 mainstem summer chinook fishery because of concerns that only 62 percent of the desired Wenatchee River basin sockeye escapement, 14,300 adult fish, was forecast to return this year.
But through Wednesday, 164,431 sockeye had already been counted climbing over Bonneville's fish ladders at a point when typically about half of any year's sockeye run will have passed the dam. The majority of those fish, and the fish yet to come, are bound for the Okanogan and Wenatchee basins in central Washington and southern British Columbia.
As a result of the high counts -- including nearly 135,000 from June 18-23 -- the Technical Management Team's federal, state and tribal fishery experts on Wednesday upgraded the run forecast from 125,300 in preseason to the latest estimate of 250,000.
That doubling of the overall forecast assumes a doubling of the anticipated escapement. In the case of the Wenatchee run, the escapement is now expected to be about 28,000, well above the 23,000-fish goal.
The managers' hands now are mostly tied by agreements that allow the combined non-tribal sport and commercial fisheries to exact no more than a 1 percent impact on the Snake River portion of the sockeye run, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The preseason forecast was for a return of only 600 Snake River sockeye to the mouth of the Columbia.
TAC did not specifically update the Snake River portion of the forecast so the overall run size is used as a surrogate in calculating impacts. That means the maximum allowable catch for non-tribal fisheries would be 2,500 sockeye. ODFW and WDFW staffs estimate that the total sport catch will be less than 1,200 during the late June-July period since more than half of the fast-moving has likely already cleared the lower river where most of the fishing will take place.
The options for the gill-net fleet were few. State officials said that allowing a large mesh gill-net fishery would likely result in the harvest of more summer chinook than is allowed under the prevailing allocation agreement. The large mesh nets are designed to catch the bigger bodied chinook, and they allow most smaller fish, such as sockeye and steelhead, to slip through.
At this point in time the river is also starting to fill with summer steelhead, which also includes several listed stocks that are protected by harvest limits.
Commercial fishers attending Thursday's meeting of the Columbia River Compact urged the states to work with NOAA Fisheries to develop some sort of option that would allow them to catch and sell sockeye.
"The consumer is just dying to buy a blueback," gill netter Jack Marinkovich told the Compact. "And here we are stuck with 1 percent impacts again." He and other commercial fisherman urged the states and ESA watchdog NOAA Fisheries to discuss a relaxation of the impact limit, or some other solution.
"It's really a shame to have that kind of a resource and not take advantage of it," said Jim Wells of Salmon for All. He said impacts should be on a sliding scale -- with larger harvests allowed on larger runs -- as are limits for other protected stocks.
The WDFW's Bill Tweit said if the sudden wealth of sockeye could have been foreseen fishery managers could have considered allowing sockeye retention during two recent mainstem commercial outings targeting summer chinook and sturgeon. But time this year is too short to change the rules. Allowing a large mesh fishery now would push the fleet over chinook impact limits and a small mesh fishery poses risks to steelhead.
"I just don't see any way out of the box," said Tweit, who represents the WDFW's director on the Compact. "In the face of what should be good news it is bittersweet."
The commercial fleet did do well in its initial outings, catching a total of 4,786 chinook and 256 white sturgeon during the evenings of June 17 and June 22. Only 660 chinook remain on the fleet's total summer chinook allocation of 5,450.
The fact sheet prepared by staff for Thursday's meeting said that commercial fishing could resume as early as the week of July 5 when much of the chinook run will have disappeared upriver and catch rates should be lower. The non-Indian gill-net fleet is limited to the lower river, from Bonneville Dam 146 river miles down to the mouth.
The Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries, did approve two 2 ½-day openings for four treaty tribes in the mainstem reservoirs above Bonneville. The first starts at 6 a.m. Tuesday, June 29, and the second starts Tuesday, July 6.
Tribal officials estimate that they will gill net as many as 12,000 summer chinook and 7,500 sockeye during the two openings. That would bring their total for the season to 23,500 chinook and 13,470 sockeye. Their allocation under the management agreement is 25,500 chinook. The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Warm Springs tribes can also harvest up to 7 percent of the sockeye run, which would be 17,500 fish based on the new forecast.
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