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Fall Chinook Passing Bonneville
Break Single Day Record

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 12, 2003

No one knows how the rest of the 2003 upriver fall chinook salmon return to the Columbia River will play out. Certain, however, is the knowledge that more migrating fall chinook salmon passed Bonneville Dam Thursday -- 45,884 adults -- than on any single day since the dam was completed in 1938.

"The previous modern-day record was 39,400 in 1987," according to Curt Melcher of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The peak count that year was recorded on Sept. 12, followed by counts of 31,000, 22,000, 21,000, 16,000 and 10,000 on succeeding days as the sharply peaking run continued.

This year's run has followed a trend similar to that of 1987 with uncharacteristically high counts in early September, a fall off for a few days, then a return to even more prodigious numbers.

September started with a rush with daily fall chinook counts at Bonneville of between 22,000 and 24,000 Sept. 3-6. The next three days saw counts dip to 10,000 to 12,000.

Then the run exploded -- 26,850 adults were counted on Wednesday (Sept. 10), setting up Thursday's record. The overall count through Sept. 11 was 311,265 adult fall chinook through Bonneville. That compares to 344,731 fish counted through that date in 2002 on the way to a total upriver run of 543,700.

"It's very unusual to have it (the fall chinook run) peak in early September and then drop," Melcher said of the trend in 1987, and now. "Part of the reason you see this peak is because of the delay earlier." Officials would not hazard a guess as to why some of the chinook apparently dallied for a few days before ascending the Bonneville ladders.

Signals from sport fishers in the lower Columbia are that more fall chinook are on the way. Surveys conducted by Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife are indicating fishers are catching two, and in some cases three or four fish per boat. Melcher, an ODFW employee since 1985, said he can only remember a few isolated incidences over the years of catch rates as high as two chinook per boat during the later summer/fall season.

"That is incredibly good for fall chinook fishing in the mainstem," said Melcher, who was at Bonneville in 1987 for that record count.

Fisheries officials will stick, at least for now, close to their preseason forecasts regarding overall run sizes.

The "upriver bright" fall chinook run -- bound in large part for the Columbia's Hanford Reach -- was forecast this spring to be the second largest return since 1989. An updated forecast produced Thursday by the multi-agency Technical Advisory Committee bumped that forecast from 258,400 to 263,600. The largest upriver bright return since 1989 was last year -- 276,900 adults. The forecasts will likely be updated again next week.

Other elements of the chinook run headed for hatcheries or spawning grounds above Bonneville were also slightly improved or static. The Mid-Columbia bright prediction is for a return of 88,700 adults to the mouth of the river (up from the preseason forecast of 86,600) and Bonneville pool hatchery "tules" estimate remained at 101,900. The Mid-Columbia return would be the third largest since 1980. Last year's total was 106,000 adult returns. The tule return would be the fourth largest since 1976, according to Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife staff. Last year's tule return was 160,800.

"The chinook forecasts are very close to what they were preseason," said Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission staff. He said that, historically, slightly more than half of the fall chinook run will have passed Bonneville by the second week in September.

The steelhead forecast was actually ratcheted down slightly, from 279,600 in the preseason to Thursday's 278,000 forecast. The latest estimate includes about 60,000 wild and 218,000 hatchery "A" steelhead. The A steelhead are bound for tributaries across the Columbia Basin.

The "B" steelhead forecast is for 23,000 wild returns and 53,200 hatchery returns. That's up from preseason forecasts of 53,200 hatchery and 11,500 wild returns.

The overall upriver summer steelhead return could potentially be the fourth largest on record (since 1938) with the top two marks being 478,000 last year and 630,200 in 2001. During that record year, some 527,810 had passed Bonneville Dam through Sept. 10.

The Columbia River Compact today were expected to approve additional fisheries for both tribal and non-Indian gill-netters. Representatives of Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife department directors meet as a compact to consider mainstem commercial fishing options.

Tribal gill-netting fisheries during the past three have yielded mixed results. Fishers brought in 8,715 chinook during the Aug. 26-30 fisheries in the Columbia River mainstem's reservoirs above Bonneville Dam. The total was 19,277 chinook during the Sept. 2-5 fishery. The projected tribal commercial fall chinook catch, through Sept. 12, is 54,370. But fishing effort was down during this week's fishery, which ends today, with just over 300 nets counted on the river, Ellis said. In a normal season more than 400 tribal nets could be expected during the height of the season.

"It is markets," Ellis said of the apparent diminished interest. He said he had been told that commercial buyers are paying only about 35 cents per pound for the chinook brights caught by tribal fishers. Chinook tules are only bringing about 5 to 10 cents per pound and steelhead and coho only about 5 to 15 cents per pound.

So far tribal harvest impacts are well below limits set in a federal/state/tribal fishing agreement to protect portions of the run that are listed under the Endangered Species Act -- the Snake River wild fall chinook that are a part of the upriver bright run and the Snake River A and B steelhead. An overall 31.29 impact is allowed on the upriver bright run with 23.04 percent allow treaty Indian fisheries and 8.25 percent split between non-Indian sport and commercial fisheries. Tribal fishers are allowed a 15 percent impact on the "B" portion of the Snake River steelhead run -- fish bound for Idaho's Clearwater and Salmon rivers. Non-Indian fishers are allowed a 2 percent toll on the B run.

Using project catch totals for this week's fisheries, the tribal subsistence and commercial catch has exacted an estimated 12 percent impact on the upriver bright chinook. Ellis said the treaty tribes also remain well below the steelhead impact limit.

Two non-Indian mainstem commercial fisheries in August resulted in a catch of 15,323 chinook, as well as 311 coho, 2,546 white sturgeon and 11 green sturgeon.

Barry Espenson
Fall Chinook Passing Bonneville Break Single Day Record
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 12, 2003

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