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Bonneville Dam Fish Counts
Now Above 10-Year Average

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 23, 2004

Anglers' opportunities will be limited for the balance of the season after one week's sport catch in the Columbia River mainstem witnessed a near doubling of that fishery's "impact" on the upriver spring chinook salmon run.

As of Thursday the sport fishery between Bonneville Dam and the Interstate 5 bridge at Portland/Vancouver is closed. The season had been open from the dam to the river's mouth but a high catch of upriver salmon, which includes protected wild fish, forced Oregon and Washington officials to close the upriver section to avoid exceeding prescribed impact limits. Officials hope to allow fishing into May in the reaches below Portland.

A state-tribal management agreement endorsed by NOAA Fisheries allows an overall non-tribal impact limit 2 percent on the upriver stocks in the mainstem. That's based on a preseason forecast of a return to the river mouth of 360,700 adult upriver spring chinook. The sport fishery gets 1.2 percent of the impact while non-Indian fishers get .8 percent. The fishers can keep fin-clipped hatchery salmon but must release all unmarked fish, a portion of which are Upper Columbia and Snake river wild chinook that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The fishers have been successful despite the fact that bulk of the anticipated upriver run has yet to clear the first hydrosystem hurdle on their homeward journey. Through Thursday, 75,840 adult salmon had been counted ascending Bonneville's fish ladders. That compares well with the 10-year average count through April 22 -- 60,426. And it's actually better than the 58,632 count through April 22, 2002. The fish eventually arrived for a total 2002 return of 295,100 -- the second-largest return since record-keeping began in 1938.

This year's Bonneville count is also not too far off the 88,645 total through April 22, 2000, or the 112,771 tally through that date last year. The run eventually totaled 178,600 in 2000 and 208,900 adults last year. A whopping 267,106 upriver spring chinook had passed Bonneville through April 22, 2001, when a record return of 416,500 was recorded.

Those runs of the past four years have far exceeded those of the 1990s, which ranged from a low of only 10,200 upriver spring chinook adult returns to the mouth of the Columbia to as many as 114,100.

The counts at Bonneville took a jump this past week. The first daily count of more than 1,000 occurred on April 9 to bring the total count to only 4,443. But the stream of passing fish has grown steadily. After daily counts from 3,099 to 4,667 April 15-17, the counts jumped to 9,488 to 8,263 to 12,656 early this week. The tally dropped to 6,208 on Wednesday and jumped up to 13,030 on Thursday.

Fishery experts are not yet tempted to downsize the forecast yet. The state, federal and tribal members of the Technical Advisory Team judged this week that it is too early in the annual migration period to update the run and that, if the run is late timed as they believe, the preseason forecast is still within the expected range.

"You can't say yet how late it is," said Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Despite the recent surge, "it's still going to be tough" to reach that 360,700 estimated run, LeFleur said. In an average year, 50 percent of the upriver run will have passed Bonneville Dam by April 26, according to more recent year's data. For a "late" run, that halfway mark has come in April 30 or May 1, so it would take a string of high-count days to put the 2004 return back on track.

The sport fishing closure between Portland and Bonneville was prompted because, between April 11 and April 18 anglers' impacts on the upriver salmon swelled from an estimated 37.6 percent of their allowable impact to 67 percent. Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife staff estimate that that impact will rise to 84 percent in fisheries through April 25.

Those estimates of impacts would change if TAC's next assessment of the run size changes. A smaller run projection would mean the catch to-date represents a higher impact rate. TAC plans to meet Monday to consider whether it has enough information to revise the upriver spring chinook run forecast.

During the period from April 11-18, anglers caught more than 6,400 chinook and kept 4,891 in the area above the I-5 bridge. All of that catch was estimated to be upriver fish bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville Dam. A portion of unmarked released fish are presumed to die and become part of that impact statistic. The catch in the waters below Portland includes a stronger mix of upriver fish with chinook bound for the Willamette River and other lower Columbia tributaries so upriver impacts accumulate more slowly.

The kept catch of 8,230 salmon in the area above the I-5 bridge accounts for nearly half of the total sport catch, 16,542, during the April 1-18 period. Anglers have kept 19,204 chinook since fishing began in February during an estimated 132,428 outings.

The catch rate in April, 0.27 fish per boat angler, is much improved from the February-March rate of 1 fish per 12 anglers. The catch rate has been even better in the I-5 to Bonneville portion -- 0.43 salmon per angler.

WDFW surveys of anglers show that that catch rate has been even higher during this past week just below Bonneville. Washington bank anglers were hauling in 0.37 chinook keepers per rod, and boat anglers were keeping 0.63 salmon per angler per outing.

The non-tribal commercial fishing on the lower mainstem has been idled since late March after eating more than 80 percent of their upriver chinook impact allotment. Fisheries officials have said more mainstem commercial fishing is possible in May. Fisheries began again this week at lower river "select areas" where juvenile hatchery salmon are released from net pens, then targeted for harvest on their return. The strategy is intended to allow a focused harveston the returning fish in areas where there are few upriver chinook migrating through.

The mainstem commercial fisheries have caught 18,576 chinook, and kept 13,546 this year. There have been 1,938 chinook caught, and 1,929 kept, in select area fisheries through April 12.

The chinook are forging their way upstream. The count at the next hydro project, The Dalles, was 41,183 through Thursday with counts of more than 7,000 both Wednesday and Thursday. The count at McNary Dam was 13,302 through Thursday with more than 10,000 of those fish passing during the past week. About 1,851 of those fish took a right at the Snake River and have been counted passing their eighth hydro project, Lower Grande.

Treaty tribes have begun to fill their ceremonial harvest permits in the reservoirs above Bonneville but have not yet requested a commercial fishery.

Based on a predicted return of spring chinook to the Snake River that is above the 10 year average return rate, Idaho and Washington officials have announced that there are sufficient numbers of hatchery origin fish to open a sport fishery along the state line Saturday, April 24. Fishing for chinook is open on the Snake River from Southway Bridge crossing the Snake River at Lewiston/Clarkston upstream to the Heller Bar concrete boat ramp below the confluence of the Grande Ronde River. The opportunity will be limited based upon potential impacts to wild fish. Angler catch rates will be monitored closely and Snake River salmon fisheries may be closed prior to May 31 based upon on-going harvest quota evaluations.

Fishing will be open seven days per week. Night closure is in effect. The salmon daily limit will be 2 hatchery (adipose clipped) chinook only with a minimum size of 12 inches. The adipose fin-clipped fish must have a healed scar at the location of the missing fin. All chinook with the adipose fish intact, and all steelhead, must be immediately released unharmed. In addition, anglers must use barbless hooks when fishing for all species in these areas of the Snake River during the salmon fishery.

Barry Espenson
Bonneville Dam Fish Counts Now Above 10-Year Average
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 23, 2004

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