Tardy, Tiny Chinook Run
by Eric Barker
Columbia River spring chinook run was expected to be small, but is way behind schedule
Anglers and fisheries managers alike are growing increasingly anxious over the failure of the Columbia River spring chinook run to materialize.
The run, as measured at Bonneville Dam, has fallen dramatically behind schedule. As of Wednesday, about 26,000 adult chinook had been counted while passing the dam. That is only about a quarter of the 10-year average. At Lower Granite Dam, about 100 spring chinook had been counted through Wednesday, about 7 percent of the 10-year average.
Salmon managers were not expecting the run to be strong. The preseason forecast called for a return of about 160,000 spring chinook bound for tributaries upstream of Bonneville Dam, including about 95,800 headed for the Snake River system.
But to date, the run stacks up as one of the lowest ever recorded at both Bonneville and Lower Granite dams. Based on the timing of returns over the past 10 years, the run, as measured at Bonneville Dam, generally is 50 percent complete by May 7.
"There is no doubt the run is late;, but what that means for the end numbers to come over we still don't know," said Brett Bowersox, a fisheries biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.
The season in Idaho opened April 22, but Idaho Fish and Game officials have yet to record the harvest of even a single fish in their creel sampling.
Many anglers and fisheries officials believe that a longer-than-normal period of cold water, followed quickly by high flows, are at least partially to blame for the relative no-show. The Columbia at Bonneville Dam warmed to 53 degrees on May 4, and daily counts there jumped from several hundred per day to more than 4,000. That was followed by counts in excess of 6,000 on May 5. But flows started climbing there and have been above 450,000 cubic feet per second the past four days. The daily counts of chinook steadily dropped with the rising flows, ending up at just more than 1,008 on Wednesday.
"Unfortunately for everybody, the counts are absurdly low and the flows are absurdly high," said Chris Donley, fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"I don't think it's coincidental that flows got as low as they have been all spring and the (fish count) numbers went up, and as soon as it got hot and the flows went back up over flood stage in the lower (Columbia), the fish stopped moving again."
Donley said the two-day-a-week spring chinook fisheries on the Snake River will stay open through Monday. Fisheries managers from the region are scheduled to meet via teleconference Monday morning to discuss the run and decide whether the preseason forecast will be adjusted. He said it's likely the run forecast will be downgraded but possible it will still be high enough for scheduled fisheries to continue.
"My gut tells me it's not as bad as it looks, but it's not as good as preseason forecast - but that is just a gut call not based on any science," Donley said.
Bowersox said there is at least one clue supporting the idea that the run is stalled below Bonneville. Researchers from the National Marine Fisheries Service placed radio-telemetry tags on 260 chinook last month to track their movements between the mouth of the Columbia and Bonneville Dam. Through last week, only eight of the tagged fish had made it to the dam.
"That is an indication, we hope, there are more fish still downstream, if that tagged group is representative of the run at large," he said.
Anglers and those who operate businesses tied to the run are doing their best to stay positive.
"I'm still optimistic we are going to get our fish but I'll tell you, as each day passes I get a little less optimistic," said Toby Wyatt of Reel Time Fishing of Clarkston.
Randy Krall, owner of the Lewiston tackle store Camp, Cabin and Home, said it's getting tougher to stay upbeat, but he's not giving up.
"I just hope they are stuck down below Bonneville and the sea lions don't eat the rest of them," Krall said.
Overall Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead forecast for 2017
Snake River-specific forecast
NOAA Fisheries forecast based on ocean conditions
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