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Time Will Tell If Run is a Disaster

by Henry Miller
Statesman Journal, April 16, 2005

It could be May before it's known how poor this year is

An angler casts for salmon downstream from Bonneville Dam in this 2001 photo. Officials say it's still too early to tell how the Columbia River spring chinook run will turn out. (AP Photo) In describing survival of the juvenile fish migrating to the ocean in 2002, Steve Williams said: "Again, not good conditions, but not so bad that you would see what at this time looks like a collapse."

Williams, the assistant administrator for the the Fish Division for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, was giving a grim progress report on the run in front of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Bottom line: It's still too early to tell just how bad the Columbia River spring chinook run will turn out.

"Through the 13th of April, we have a whopping 251 adult spring chinook over Bonneville Dam," Williams said.

If the initial rosy forecast of slightly more than a quarter-million springers had been right and the run had arrived on schedule, that figure should have been more than 40,000 salmon.

Official recalculations of runs won't be done until late April or early May when about 50 percent of the run traditionally has passed Bonneville.

But because of the puny returns, officials already have downsized the predicted run to about 100,000 for the purpose of setting fishing rules.

And recreational salmon-fishing restrictions on the Columbia could be imposed as early as Wednesday. Officials meet Tuesday to review the latest fish counts and catch figures.

Similarly, officials have lowered the estimate of upriver native, nonhatchery steelhead that are protected under the federal Endangered Species List.

"That run also has not been formally upgraded, but we're estimating that the wild winter steelhead run will come in at about 55 percent of the 27,000 fish that we had estimated," Williams said. "If I did my math right, that's about 14,850 fish."

Don Denman, the commission member from Medford, asked the question that was on everyone's mind.

"Would we have a timeline on when we're going to know if it's a total disaster?" he asked.

"It's very obvious this is, at least the bulk, a very late run, possibly one of the latest on record," Williams responded about Columbia spring chinook. "And so it will probably be into May before we have a clear picture of whether we have a complete, shall we say, disaster or not."

And counts of jack salmon -- sexually immature males, the numbers of which are a predictor for the following year's run -- were good enough to generate the 254,000 prediction.

"We had 12,300 jacks last year," Williams said, adding that should have meant a strong run of 4-year-old spawners. "So far, we're still waiting for that return."

And there's a dichotomy in that jack counts were low on the Willamette River -- 1,200 -- yet the number of spring chinook that have passed Willamette Falls, 452 as of April 13, are about on par with the predicted return of 117,000 springers.

Sea lion predation is another factor, he said.

"I talked to Robin Brown (an ODFW official) before I put my numbers here on paper, and he conservatively estimates that between 200 and 500 animals are up the river," Williams said. "And there's no doubt they have impacts.

That number includes about 40 sea lions in the pool below the face of Bonneville Dam, and two that actually got into the fish ladder.

An Army Corps of Engineers effort to drive the two sea lions from the ladder is working, and an active hazing effort using fireworks such as screamers and aerial firecrackers are having some effect.

"There's lots of reports to us from the recreational and the commercial fishery as well of fish being taken right off the lines of people who have (salmon) on."

Longterm, corps officials are working on installing a grate on the ladder that would allow fish through and keep sea lions out, Williams said.

Henry Miller
Time Will Tell If Run is a Disaster
Statesman Journal, April 16, 2005

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