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Salmon Create Dam Traffic Jam

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, September 19, 2003

Salmon are swarming past Bonneville Dam in such massive numbers that frenzied stampeding up a narrow fish ladder may have killed some slowpokes.

A record-setting 45,884 fall chinook surged past the dam Sept. 11 -- quadruple the typical number of years past. Each of the following three days also beat the previous one-day record of 39,376 set Sept. 12, 1987.

"It's just an immense, unexpected, unprecedented return of salmon," said Steve King, fishery program leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Including steelhead and coho salmon, more than 59,000 fish a day were fighting past Bonneville Dam at the height of the latest scramble.

"This was, I'm sure, the heaviest passage that ever went through a single fish ladder, at least in the Columbia River," said Larry Basham, a biologist with the Portland-based Fish Passage Center, who witnessed the record-setting day.

"It was just wall-to-wall fish," he said.

A fraction died during the pileups -- an ironic event in an era when dramatic and expensive steps have been taken to coax salmon past fish ladders that for years had gone underused.

Observers counted 25 dead chinook on the ladder on the Washington side of the river during the four record-setting days, according to Craig Burley of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Officials were reluctant, however, to assign a cause to the deaths.

Burley and several other biologists said they were uncertain whether crowding was the cause. No dead chinook showed up on the dam's alternate fish ladder, on the Oregon side, which remained uncrowded, drawing a tenth to a quarter of the daily run.

The total fall run of chinook entering the Columbia might set a record. King said the run is likely to reach 800,000 -- about 50 percent higher than fishery managers had forecast -- and could reach 900,000. The last time that happened was 1948, although 1987 came close with a run of 872,000.

The count at Bonneville Dam already has exceeded the record set last year: 475,000 fall chinook.

Biologists think a cyclical change in ocean currents and nutrient levels is the primary reason for the large run, along with improvements at the dams.

"It's made my job more fun, I tell you," King said.

About half of the run is composed of hatchery fish released primarily to supply ocean and river fisheries.

Despite the large return, tribal fishermen who rely heavily on the fall chinook run have caught relatively few fish.

Stuart Ellis, fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said prices for salmon are depressed because of a lack of demand, especially from commercial buyers.

"The economic conditions have been pretty rough," Ellis said.

The four tribes have treaty rights to about 23 percent of the upriver run, but their total catch is less than half that.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Salmon Create Dam Traffic Jam
The Oregonian, September 19, 2003

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