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Chinook Run Could be Highest on Record

by Henry Miller
Statesman Journal, February 23, 2014

(Henry Miller photo) Almost a million upriver-bright fall-run Chinook salmon like this one are expected to cross Bonneville Dam this year. This salmon was one of several that made a guest appearance in an aquarium in the Natural Resources Area at the 2013 Oregon State Fair. Nobody knows if this year's projected spawning run of 1.6-plus million fall-run Chinook salmon on the Columbia River would be the largest ever.

What fisheries officials can say, though, is if the run shows up as predicted it would be the largest return on record since 1938.

That's because there was no way to count them until Bonneville Dam was completed in 1937. This year's forecast includes nearly a million upriver-bright Chinook that pass above the dam.

"That's the problem," said Chris Kern. "We don't have any way to quantify the count until the construction of the dam.

"So a lot of the historic records when you do see them are run off of some kind of an approximation, like one of the common ones used to be the fish pack, the cans of salmon, back in the day. I'm not aware of a good way to quantify it."

Kern is the acting assistant Fish Division administrator for the Columbia River and marine with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He said that two of the major drivers for the expected return are good ocean conditions when salmon are out at sea and a mandated "spill regime," basically water released through the spill gates on Columbia and Snake River dams at specific times to help the small salmon get past them.

The Chinook forecast is on top of a predicted return of 964,000-plus coho salmon to the Columbia. The only time the total for the two salmon runs was even close to this year's forecast was in 1986, Kern said.

"It was 1.5-plus-million coho and about 700,000 total fall Chinook. So a little flip-flop, but still pretty darn big," he said. "It's the second-biggest number that I have in my records going back to '38."

There are constraints on salmon take such as protections against incidental deaths of fish listed threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, upriver wild Snake River fall Chinook and lower-river Tule Chinook stocks.

And because coho and Chinook are players in ocean fishing, there is an added layer of management by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

"The management structure and process for the fall fisheries is quite a bit more complex in that part of it goes through the PFMC," Kern said. "So we have to make sure that these fisheries inside and outside mesh."

Because of those qualifiers, there always is a bit of restraint in talking about the spectacular run forecasts, he said.

"I always struggle with how to say this because you see the record number, but at the same time there are still rules, there are still things that we have to worry about and squeeze," Kern said.

"But it's definitely looking to be great. And especially when you put the coho and the fall Chinook together. It's going to be ... that's a big fall return."

Henry Miller
Chinook Run Could be Highest on Record
Statesman Journal, February 23, 2014

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