Upriver Spring Chinook Returnby Barry Espenson
The forecast return of "upriver" spring chinook salmon to the Columbia River was revised upward again this week, allowing tribal treaty fishers an unexpected chance to open their second commercial gillnet fishing period of the season.
The Columbia River Compact, representing the states of Oregon and Washington, on Wednesday approved a 2 ½-day commercial outing for fishers from Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes. The fishery began at 6 a.m. Thursday and closes at 6 p.m. Saturday. Fish caught during the fishery will be available to the public at over-the-bank sales sites throughout the Columbia Basin.
Sales of gillnet-caught fish will be offered during the weekend at various sites throughout Zone 6, a 150-mile stretch of the Columbia between the Bonneville Dam and McNary Dam near Umatilla. Spring chinook and steelhead will be sold. Small numbers of walleye, shad and carp may also be available for sale. Sturgeon will not be available to the public for purchase.
Commercial sales of platform- and hook-and-line-caught fish began with last month's two-and-a-half-day gillnet period and remains in effect through 6 p.m. Saturday, May 31.
Virgil Lewis Sr., a member of the Yakama Nation's fish and wildlife committee, told the Compact that the size of the spring chinook run is larger than forecast. State, federal and tribal fishery scientists early this week estimated that 203,000 adult spring chinook would enter the mouth of the Columbia River this year. That was an improvement of 10,000 fish from the previous forecast and much higher than a preseason forecast made last winter of 145,400 fish.
The run continues a string of strong returns. The total was 178,600 in 2000, 416,500 in 2001 and 295,100 last year. The 2001 total was the largest since record keeping began in 1938. Only six times in the previous 30 years had the upriver spring chinook count exceeded 100,000. And prior to 2001, the last time the run exceeded 200,000 was in 1972.
The improved forecast actually opened a window of opportunity for the tribes. Under a management agreement between the states and tribes, and approved by federal agencies, the tribes were allowed an impact of 9 percent on the upriver spring chinook run based on a run size of less than 200,000 fish. That would have allowed a harvest of 17,370 chinook under the previous forecast.
When the forecast improved to 203,000, the tribes allowable impact bumped up to 10 percent, or 20,300 fish, under terms of the agreement.
The tribes had earlier caught about 15,500 fish combined during ceremonial and subsistence fisheries, tribal hook and line and platform fisheries and in an earlier commercial gill net season. That would have left only 1,800 fish remaining under the impact limit but the expanded forecast leaves the tribes as many as 4,700 fish to catch. This week's fishery is expected to net 2,600 to 3,000 fish in the reservoirs above Bonneville Dam, according to Stuart Ellis, harvest management biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The tribal and non-Indian mainstem Columbia fisheries are limited to protect portions of the upriver run that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The non-tribal sport and commercial fisheries were allowed a 2 percent impact under the terms of the management agreement. The only mainstem non-tribal fisheries that remain open are sport seasons in the lower Snake River and at Wanapum Dam in the mid-Columbia.
Under the accounting system set up by fishery managers, fish passing Bonneville Dam -- the lowermost hydro project on the Columbia/Snake mainstem -- are counted as spring chinook through May 31. Beginning June 1, the chinook passing the dam are counted as summer chinook. That summer run is expected to number 87,600 this year.
Through Wednesday, the adult spring chinook tally at Bonneville was 180,719 with 10 days of counting left. Additionally, about 13,000 upriver fish were caught in non-Indian sport and commercial fisheries in mainstem between the dam and the river's mouth. The peak daily count was nearly 8,000 fish on April 16. Daily counts over the past week have ranged from 807 on May 16 to 2,394 this past Tuesday.
The count through Wednesday was 81,373 adult spring chinook at McNary Dam, the fourth hydro project on the Columbia system. A total of 46,838 spring chinook had reached Lower Granite Dam, the eight dam overall and fourth on the lower Snake River that the fish pass on their way to Idaho hatcheries and spawning grounds.
Ellis said the spring chinook run is dominated this year by 5-year-old fish, which is unusual.
"We don't know why 5-year-olds have come back in such large numbers," he said.
A preseason forecast estimated a return of about 35,000 5-year-olds and slightly more than 110,000 4-year-olds, but those numbers have changed dramatically in recent months: Nearly 110,000 5-year-olds and 72,000 4-year-olds are expected to return, Ellis noted.
CRITFC and tribal scientists believe the lower count of 4-year-old fish can be attributed to low water flows that occurred when the fish were juveniles migrating to the ocean through the hydropower system in 2001. The low flows resulted from reduced spills initiated during the Bonneville Power Administration's "power emergency."
However, "Nobody has any idea about why the 5-year-olds are doing so well," Ellis said.
He added that more than 12,290 young male "jacks" have crossed Bonneville Dam so far, "and that is an indication of a pretty good run next year."
PIT tag detections at Bonneville and other dams indicate that the fish passing now do include some summer chinook, which are physically "indistinguishable" from their spring cousins, Ellis said.
The summer chinook, like several other Columbia Basin salmon stocks, are enjoying relative revivals in recent years. A return to the river mouth of 129,000 summer chinook in 2002 was the largest since at least 1960 and more than 3 ½-times the recent five-year average of 36,500 fish. Since 1973 the summer stock had been at low, albeit stable, levels with counts ranging from 15,000 to 38,700. The counts spiked to 76,400 in 2001.
The summer stock is bound for production areas and hatcheries above Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia and Lower Granite. The Snake River wild stock are grouped with wild spring chinook in a single Endangered Species Act listing as threatened. The wild Snake River stocks did not show quite the improvement last year as did the upper Columbia summer stocks in 2002. The Snake Rive wild return was 4,400 fish, slightly better than the 1979-2001 average of 3,700 fish. The preseason forecast is for a return of 7,700 wild Snake River summer chinook to the mouth of the Columbia in 2003.
Tribal sellers can be found at various locations between Bonneville Dam and McNary Dam. Major sales locations include the Marine Park at Cascade Locks, Lone Pine at The Dalles and the boat launch near Roosevelt, Wash. Buyers should bring sufficient ice and coolers to keep fish fresh. Sales are cash only. Customers can call toll-free (888) 289-1855 for more information. Prices are expected to be $3 to $4 per pound.
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