Upriver Spring Chinook "Washing in And Out"
The lower Columbia River is so crowded with spring chinook salmon that some are being bumped into off-channel areas where the spawning fish -- most headed for tributaries 100 and more miles upriver -- rarely wander.
That's what some are speculating as they await what is forecast to be the largest "upriver" spring chinook return on record -- 470,000 adult fish to the mouth of the river. The fish are returning to hatcheries and tributary spawning grounds above the lower Columbia River's Bonneville Dam.
"We've got a beautiful run of fish this year and it's looking better every day," commercial fisherman Les Clark told the Columbia River Compact Tuesday. He was one of several commercial fishermen to testify that there are signs aplenty in the lower river that a mass of fish has entered the river mouth.
One of those signs, Clark said, is that in years of big returns more of the upriver fish tend to get pushed off the main channel and wander into off-channel areas, including so-called "select areas" where young hatchery chinook are acclimated before their release so that they will home in on those areas when they return as adults.
The idea is to provide "selective" fishing where the catch is almost entirely comprised of lower river hatchery fish in areas where few upriver fish stray. The upriver spring chinook returns include wild Snake River and Upper Columbia stocks that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
This year "there have been more upriver fish washing in and out" of those select areas, Clark said. The result has been an unprecedented catch of upriver fish in select areas in recent days.
The increased "upriver impacts" forced the closure this week until further notice of planned select area commercial fisheries, as well as angling effective Saturday, at Deep River, Youngs Bay, Tongue Point/South Channel and Blind Slough/Knappa Slough in the lower Columbia estuary. The areas are normally open to recreational fishing year round under permanent rules and open to commercial fishing for spring chinook through early June.
The commercial fishery was closed because the commercial harvest guideline of upriver stock spring chinook has been met. The recreational fishery was closed because the recreational guideline for the lower Columbia River downstream of Bonneville Dam, which includes the select areas, also has been met.
During the select area commercial season that ended April 5, chinook landings were the highest on record for the winter season with a total of 1,592 chinook taken. It included a catch of 104 upriver spring chinook, which "was consistent with expectations," according to an April 20 joint staff report from the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.
But the tide turned with the first fisheries of the "spring" select area season April 14-15. Landings were the highest on record, 3,917 spring chinook, but the proportion of upriver stock in that catch was "substantially higher than average and slightly higher than the highest proportions ever observed for spring chinook openers from past seasons, with 13.7 percent of the sampled catch being upriver stock fish" based on visual stock identification, the staff report says. That amounted to 538 upriver fish.
During subsequent fishing periods, April 18-20, about 2,600 chinook were harvested in the select areas.
The upriver catch for the spring select area commercial season had climbed to 1,279 upriver spring chinook salmon through April 19.
Commercial fisheries in the mainstem and select areas have harvested a total of 18,000 spring chinook.
The select area fisheries -- scheduled to occur through mid-June -- are now stalled until fishery managers have more certainty about the size of the upriver run. So are mainstem sport and commercial fisheries.
That certainty comes from actual fish counts at Bonneville. Run-size forecast updates typically are produced in late April or early May.
"I don't have a doubt that we're going to have a big push over the dam in the next week or so," one commercial fisherman told the Compact, which sets mainstem commercial fisheries.
Through Tuesday, a total of 56,735 spring chinook had been counted this year passing up and over Bonneville's fish ladders. That's the highest cumulative count through April 20 since 2003 and the sixth highest total through that date on record dating back to 1977. Most of those fish, more than 45,000, had passed the dam during the previous week with daily counts rising from less than 4,000 to 9,014 on Tuesday.
Fish watchers are hoping those counts continue to rise. A return of 470,000 upriver springers to the river mouth equates to a count of about 410,000 at Bonneville, so there's a long way to go. The peak daily count at Bonneville was more than 27,000 in 2001 when a record 439,885 upriver spring chinook entered the river.
During a joint state hearing Tuesday of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife, biologists estimated that more than 300,000 chinook would be needed to cross into the upper Columbia at Bonneville dam in order to increase the harvest guidelines enough to allow for additional fishing below Bonneville.
"We've had some impressive catches and I'm buoyed that in the past few days we've also had some counts of more than 8,000 fish over the dam," said Steve Williams, deputy administrator of ODFW's fish division. "It appears that we have a potentially very substantial upriver run, but at this time we have to manage with the information we have."
The Technical Advisory Committee says it is still too early to make any conclusions regarding the run size. TAC, formed via U.S. v Oregon litigation, is made up of representative of treaty tribes, federal agencies and the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. One of its main charges is to evaluate available data and create run-size forecasts for the various salmon and steelhead stocks that return to the Columbia-Snake river basin.
"It still seems pretty volatile," Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission staff said of the upriver spring chinook run-size evidence to-date. But most TAC members think "we are looking at a pretty sizeable run," he said.
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