Fishermen Want Actionby Barry Espenson
Columbia River mainstem commercial fishermen already severely limited by the Endangered Species Act say they are watching their limited opportunities stolen away by hungry mammals -- sea lions and seals that appear to be visiting the river in greater numbers than ever on the heals of returning smelt and spring chinook salmon runs.
"I think it's the duty of you guys at the state level to start raising Cain," fisherman Bruce Crookshanks told the Columbia River Compact Thursday. The Compact's members set commercial fishing seasons on the mainstem. Members Steve Williams and Bill Tweit represent, respectively, the directors of Oregon's and Washington's departments of fish and wildlife.
The commercial fleet is restricted to the pursuit of "a handful of salmon and you have these critters going hog wild," Crookshanks said. Non-Indian sport and commercial fishers are allowed a combined "impact" of 2 percent on the upriver spring chinook return according to the terms of an agreement between the states and lower river treaty tribes. The NOAA Fisheries has endorsed that agreement, which is intended to protect Snake River and Upper Columbia River spring chinook stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The commercial fishers' share of that 2 percent non-tribal allocation is 0.8 percent. Last year researchers estimate that a growing throng of sea lions snapped up 1.11 percent of the returning salmonid run (steelhead and salmon) in the waters just below Bonneville Dam alone.
Researchers from March 15 to the end of May last year witnessed 117 individual sea lions that have swum the more than 140 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean to the dam.
In 2002, the initial year of a study carried out at Bonneville by the Corps of Engineers, the researchers estimated that at least 30 individuals sea lions, and as many as 36, were identified in the Bonneville tailrace over the study period, according to Robert Stansell, leader for the study. As many as 11 lions were spotted below the tailrace on any one day in 2002. In 2003 that total climbed to as many as 15.
The numbers of sea lions and seals have increased considerably since 2000, at least in terms of sightings at Bonneville. Sightings of only one or two per year were reported until 2001, when six were spotted below the facility's fish ladder at one time. The upturn coincides with large spring chinook returns of recent years. The sea lions seem to follow into the river the returning smelt, then remain in the river to gorge on a main course of salmon.
Stansell said last year that researchers have estimated that, on average, the sea lions need about 1 ½ to 2 salmon per day just to maintain their metabolism.
Fisherman Gary Soderstrom said the pinnipeds are "a horrible problem up and down the river." Commercial fisheries thus far this year have been limited to the area from the river's mouth to its confluence with the Willamette River at Portland.
"They're studying them, but they aren't doing anything about them," Soderstrom said of state and federal agency research that monitors the population trends of the pinnipeds, as well as their impact on returning salmon. He said if the salmon returns dropped to pre-2000 levels, such a large aggregation of sea lions could put a huge dent in the run.
Larry Ponn, and fish buyer and commercial fisherman, called the mammal problem "unbelievable." He said that during a recent smelt fishing foray into the Cowlitz River in southwest Washington several sea lions were literally under his boat as they worked to poach the little fish from the nets.
Jim Wells, a fisherman and president of Salmon for All, said that during a recent test fishery near the mouth at Astoria he witnessed three salmon being thrown in the air by sea lions during the first 10 minutes of fishing. The two boats involved in the test fished the day with only one salmon and one steelhead caught in the nets, which Wells attributed to the work of the sea lions.
Wells urged the formation of a coalition of sport, non-tribal commercial and tribal fishermen to press officials for some action on the issue.
"We need to get to work on this or it is going to destroy it for everybody," Wells said.
The pinnipeds are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Lethal removal is prohibited without a permit, which are hard to obtain. Capturing the animals and hauling them elsewhere is an option, but not a good one. It was tried a decade and a half ago at the Ballard Locks in Puget Sound, where the lions were taking at times more than half the returning steelhead. The animals were taken to southern California and released.
"The joke was that they beat the trucks back," Stansell said of sea lions that quickly swam back to the Northwest.
He said that the first sea lions of the year were spotted at Bonneville Dam Feb. 22, three weeks earlier than last year. As many as 10 may have made their way upstream so far, taking 2-4 salmon a day. The fishing is not good there yet. Only 195 spring chinook had passed Bonneville as of March 17 out of a run that is expected to number more than 360,000, according to Corps counts. The steelhead count was 255 through March 13.
The upriver chinook run normally peaks in late March or early April but it may be later arriving this year.
Commercial fishers had caught 2,764 keepers during five fisheries conducted so far in March -- two 16-hour, two 24-hour and one 15-hour outings. The fishers can keep only salmon marked with fin-clip, sturgeon and shad, but must release all steelhead. The fishers have been using 9-inch mesh nets as required by the states as a means of allowing catch of salmon while minimizing the encounter of steelhead. The smaller steelhead can, for the most part, slip through the 9-inch mesh unharmed.
The bigger nets are required during the time of the year when large numbers of upriver fish have yet to arrive and the steelhead run is at its peak. The commercial nets are targeting marked Willamette and other lower river chinook. The Willamette run, expected to be 109,400 fish strong, normally arrives in strength ahead of the upriver run.
Soon -- fishery officials predict next week -- the fleet will have to switch to 4 ¼-inch "tangle" nets. That is when the upriver fishes' presence is expected to swell. The smaller mesh results in more steelhead being swept up in the nets, but it causes them and the chinook less harm than the larger mesh. The mortality rate for steelhead and unmarked salmon caught and released from the tangle nets is estimated to be 18.5 percent, while it is 40 percent for chinook and 30 percent for steelhead released from the large mesh nets.
"It has built a little bit, by week and by day," Williams said of the percentage of the overall catch that is from upriver (above Bonneville) hatcheries and spawning grounds. At the same time, the steelhead runs may be dwindling. During the 15-hour fishery conducted early this week the fishers landed and kept 826 salmon, of which nearly a quarter were of upriver origin. They released 551 unmarked fish. There were no steelhead landed during the most recent fishery.
Overall, the upriver run has made up 18 percent of the landed catch and 21 percent of the total catch (including the released fish).
Through that fishery that ended Tuesday, the commercial fleet had incurred 14.4 percent of its allowed upriver chinook impact and 9.9 percent of the 2 percent allowable steelhead impact.
The Compact on Thursday morning approved a 15-hour fishery that was to begin at 6 that night utilizing 9-inch mesh once again. A few fishers argued for the use of 8-inch nets, which they said would still let the steelhead to swim through for the most part and allow the fishermen to take capture the smaller, marked salmon that are swimming through.
Others, however, urged the more cautious approach of continuing with the 9-inch.
Using the big mesh has "pushed aside the steelhead issue. It's been a clean fishery. Let's not mess it up," said Jack Marinkovich.
"I'm not inclined to change the mesh. It's helping us with the steelhead issue" despite lesser chinook catch, Williams said.
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