Fish, Offby Katie Frankowicz
The Daily Astorian, May 17, 2017
Spring is over on the Columbia River -- for now.
A lower-than-expected count of returning spring Chinook salmon at Bonneville Dam delayed or closed a number of fisheries in Oregon and Washington state last week and now an updated forecast has cut the total predicted run size almost in half. As of today, even fishery managers in Idaho, who were waiting to see if more salmon would begin to pass fish counters at Bonneville Dam, decided to close the Clearwater and Salmon rivers to spring Chinook fishing.
Fishery managers at the mouth of the Columbia River aren't quite ready to give up on spring and start planning for summer, however.
They theorize that low temperatures and high river flows -- thanks to a healthy snowpack in the mountains and record rain fall elsewhere -- have kept fish waiting below Bonneville Dam. What's less clear is if the run of spring Chinook -- originally forecast at 160,000 fish, now downgraded to 83,000 -- is actually going to come in as low as the new forecast predicts.
"I still think that our run size is going to be much better than everybody is talking about," said Ron Roler, a Columbia River fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The warmer and relatively drier weather this week could encourage fish to start swimming upstream, he said. Unfortunately, it could also melt more snow, adding more water to an already swollen river and causing temperatures to drop again.
The salmon in the river right now are spring fish, and they'll remain spring fish until June 15. Then on June 16, they, along with the other runs that start to show up at this time, are all summer fish.
The summer season typically peaks early, not long after that June 16 date, said Chris Kern, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's deputy administrator of marine and Columbia River.
"We should have early indications of whether that run size is also smaller or not," he said.
In the last seven days, 45 shad have passed Bonneville Dam. Shad, a migratory fish that moves between ocean and river just like the spring Chinook, first arrived on the West Coast by train in 1871. A particularly rough migration if you're a fish. They adapted quickly, mapped new ways in new waters and are now found from Mexico to Alaska. For decades now, they've arrived in the Columbia River in late May and they cross over Bonneville Dam by the thousands, even the millions.
So 45 is an interesting number.
"At 45 for the year, the shad are having problems," said Roler. "I think everything is having problems in this flow."
Tucker Jones, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's ocean salmon and Columbia River program manager, is also optimistic that spring Chinook numbers could pick up at Bonneville. But, he said, if those numbers remain low, and steelhead numbers -- forecast to come in at 131,000 fish total -- remain low, "you start to get this body of evidence ... it starts to seem like, OK maybe our (original) forecast is a little bit optimistic."
For now, he said, "We manage with this forecast until further notice."
"You only have the experiences that you have," he added. Biologists and fishery managers look at the historical records and assume "whatever we're seeing this year is probably somewhere in the realm of what we've seen in the past."
And in the past, he said, "(a run) has never been this late and big."
For commercial and recreational fishermen alike it's been a spotty season on the Columbia River.
In April, Washington extended the sport fishing season on the Lower Columbia River to give anglers another chance at the salmon. Poor river conditions seemed to be keeping fish from biting, managers said. Meanwhile, anglers above Bonneville haven't even had a shot at spring Chinook yet and steelhead fishing is closed entirely until further notice.
Until there is proof that more spring Chinook are out there waiting to pass Bonneville, any steelhead fishing could inadvertently impact protected fish, fishery managers say. Steelhead fishing itself could be restricted this summer if the run comes in as low as fishery managers predict. Already the department is considering a plan that would close steelhead retention at dams east of Bonneville.
A commercial Oregon tangle net fishery on the river's main stem was waiting for the run update in May before it was going to be allowed to open -- a green light that likely won't flash given the downgraded forecast for returning spring Chinook.
Commercial gillnetters, restricted to select fishing areas off the Columbia River main stem, said the season was a disappointment, though landing numbers reveal a season on par with previous years. Fishermen landed a total of 7,015 Chinook, according to preliminary numbers released by Oregon. This is only slightly lower than last year, when fishermen landed 7,276, but well behind 2015 when fishermen were one fish shy of 11,000.
For those commercial fishermen who were lucky in their landings, the prices remained fairly high. Steve Fick, owner of Astoria-based processor Fishhawk Fisheries, paid fishermen as high as $20 and $15 a pound early in the season. The first fish he bought this spring was 33 pounds, Fick said: A $660 fish.
The price per pound later dropped to around $8.25 a pound as the season progressed.
"It's been OK as far as having some fish for those who are participating," Fick said. "It's been viable."
But viable is not the same thing as lucrative, he added.
Agreeing on fish
Since 2012, Oregon and Washington have been united in phasing gillnet fishing off the main stem of the Columbia River, a process that was supposed to be complete this year. But the plan hit a speed bump when Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission backpedaled on some of the reform measures and considered allowing limited gillnet fishing on the main stem. Following criticism from Gov. Kate Brown, the commission changed its decision again. The back and forth between Oregon and Washington -- the two states jointly manage fisheries on the Columbia River -- was stressful to both fishermen and fishery managers, who weren't sure what to expect in the summer and fall if the states couldn't agree on who could fish, how much they could catch and what gear they could use,
"We're in agreement now," said Kern. "As of the last meeting, we have the same allocations and gear types for summer."
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