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Fishing Too Good Too Early; ESA Impact Limits Crimp Seasons

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 4, 2003

Columbia River mainstem fishers, both recreational and commercial, are keeping their fingers crossed that a strong early showing of upriver spring chinook salmon is a portend of a much larger adult return than had been forecast.

Already both sport and commercial seasons have been crimped because, literally, the fishing has been too good, too early. The commercial fleet, after just three days on the water, shot well past an "impact" limit set by state, federal and tribal fishery agencies. The limits are intended to protect the portions of the upriver spring chinook run that is listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The sport anglers in just a week doubled their impact on the upriver spring chinook, putting them at .55 percent out of a 1.11 allowable impact limit. Under the interim management agreement, non-Indian sport and commercial fishers are allowed an overall impact 2 percent or less on the upriver run, which includes listed Snake River and Upper Columbia spring chinook. The upriver run includes populations that spawn in streams and return to hatcheries above Bonneville dam.

A sport season was expected to stretch into May. But the season was limited Tuesday in a decision made by representatives of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife. A seven-day per week season will effectively be closed on Sunday. The season will then be open four days a week (Wednesday through Saturday) beginning April 9.

The state officials also limited the area where fishing can take place. The season was originally open from Bonneville Dam to the river mouth. The state officials have now closed the area from the I-5 bridge at Portland to Bonneville Dam to salmon, steelhead and shad fishing until further notice.

The changes were made in an effort to lessen the fishery's impact on protected upriver-origin wild fish.

The season modification was necessary because the sport fishery has been harvesting a larger-than-expected proportion of upriver-origin spring chinook.

"The fact is it was a fantastic week," the WDFW's Bill Tweit said of the seven days leading up to Tuesday's joint WDFW-ODFW sport fishing hearing. A week prior to the meeting the agencies estimated that the sport fishers had eaten up about 23 percent of their allowable limit. The final week in March -- spring break in Oregon -- served to double the impact.

During March there were an estimated 68,000 angler trips. Those fishers kept 5,800 marked hatchery spring chinook and released 3,300 unmarked fish. All fishers must release salmon and steelhead that don't have an adipose fin clip. A 10-percent mortality for the released fish is assumed in the sport fishery -- hence the "impact." The unmarked fish are either of natural origin or are unmarked hatchery fish.

The piling up of impacts was due to that immense effort and the fact that more upriver fish are in the lower river than was anticipated for this early in the season. Including February, there have been 77,600 angler trips this year. In 2002, the agencies estimated 40,800 angler trips had been taken through March 31 with only 3,800 fish caught and 2,050 marked hatchery fish kept. In 2001 about 49,400 angler trips were tallied through March 31, catching 7,000 spring chinook and keeping 4,600. The end-of-March upriver impacts in 2002 and 2001 were miniscule, .092 and .147 respectively, compared to this year's total -- largely because of the early arriving fish.

More than 1,500 boats along with 1,000 bank anglers, were counted on a single day (March 29) between Bonneville Dam and Longview.

The spring chinook count at Bonneville is sky high at Bonneville with 16,724 tallied through March 31, according to the ODFW's Pat Frazier. That compares to only 2,500 through that date in 2002; 9,000 in 2001 and 1,100 in 2000. That total had swelled to 23,565 through Wednesday.

That means that near Bonneville Dam, which has featured the best fishing in recent days, the catch is nearly 100 percent upriver fish, which account for the impact limits. Below I-5 particularly, fishers can land Willamette, Clackamas, Sandy, Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis river chinook that don't factor into the 2 percent limit calculation.

The preseason estimate was that 145,400 upriver spring chinook would return to the Columbia. That compares to 178,600 in 2000, 416,500 in 2001 and 295,100 last year. The 2001 total was the largest since record keeping begin in 1938.

The lower Columbia commercial limit is allowed a .59 percent impact limit on the upriver chinook according to the terms of the agreement but have already accounted for .82 percent based on the preseason forecast.

The fleet kept 539 chinook during 16-day fishing periods on Feb. 17 and 19, and released 587 unmarked fish. And because only 39 of those fish were lower river stocks the impacts climbed quickly to .305 percent-- half their allotment. During those first two fishing periods the fishers used gill nets with 8-inch mesh or larger, for which a 50 percent mortality rate is assumed for released chinook.

The fishers idled while fishery officials waited for a better ratio of lower river fish to upriver fish to become evident, eventually setting a 10-hour fishery on March 21. A test fishery on March 17 showed that 58 percent of the fish in-river were lower river fish.

But that ratio flip-flopped by the time the commercial harvest on the lower river took place to nearly 64 percent upriver fish. The fishing was good. The commercial boats kept 3,173 marked chinook and released 2,494. That was nearly double the 2,500-3,500 that fishery officials predicted would be handled during the10-hour fishery. So despite the use of 4 -inch nets that have a lower assumed mortality -- 25 percent -- for released fish, the impact limit was breached.

That impact -- .82 actual as compared to the .59 percent allotment -- could put a squeeze on a .30 percent buffer left in the overall 2 percent allotment for impacts in select area fisheries, above McNary Dam and for contingencies. The allotment (.59 percent commercial, 1.11 percent sport and .3 buffer) is based on the run size.

The only hope for more commercial fishing, or a return to a more expanded sport fishery, is a determination that the upriver run is indeed bigger than expected. Normally a run "update" produced by state, tribal and federal officials in late April, when historically the peak of the run has passed and the number of fish counted at Bonneville daily starts to decline.

To date, most of the fish are 5-year-olds that have spent three years in the ocean. They normally return earlier than the 4-year olds, which usually make up the bulk of the run.

The Oregon and Washington officials agreed to meet again on April 15 to analyze data to that date. They expect to have a better idea then whether the run is just arriving early, or if it is bigger than forecast.

"If it is larger, everybody's impacts will come down," said Steve King, the ODFW's representative at the hearing. Both he and Tweit said that they wanted to keep at least part of the river open to sport fishing until a better evaluation of the run size could be made. Leaving the area below Bonneville meant that impacts would mount more quickly and force a total closure before April 15.

Most of the sport anglers that testified Tuesday favored an option that have allowed fishing seven days per week, but closed the area from the I-5 bridge to Bonneville.

Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and others said they did not like options that shut down the area above the 1-5 bridge.

"We're more interested in a days per week approach. We have businesses that could go under," Hamilton said of the Columbia Gorge region between Portland and Bonneville Dam. Many businesses there depend on the infusion of money that comes when anglers buy food, fuel, gear and other commodities. They have been hit, Hamilton said, already by the closure of the sturgeon season.

As an example of the impact, Hamilton said Thursday that the Skamania Lodge in the Gorge was hit by a wave of cancellations after the news of the season closure. Most were likely out-of-towners that had scheduled outfitters to help them find and land the big spring chinook salmon.

She and other sport fishing interests were also vexed that the commercial harvest got out of hand.

"They put the recreational harvest at risk by allowing a commercial overharvest," Hamilton said.

Related Sites:
ODFW: Fishing Too Good Too Early; ESA Impact Limits Crimp Seasons
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 4, 2003

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