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Preliminary Forecasts Show Strong 2014 Columbia Basin
Fish Returns for Sockeye, Spring/Fall Chinook

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 20, 2013

(Exodus Wilderness Adventures photo) A big chinook brings a big smile. Sockeye and fall and spring chinook salmon appear ready to continue recent strong trends with high returns expected to the Columbia/Snake River system next year, according to preliminary forecasts prepared by federal, state and tribal biologists.

2013 witnessed a "record" high count of upriver fall chinook, at least as regards count at Bonneville Dam, which is located at Columbia River mile 146 and marks the lower boundary of so-called "upriver" fish. Those fish include upriver bright, tule and mid-Columbia bright fall chinook. Bonneville construction was completed and counts at fish ladders there began in 1938. The overall run total would include fish harvested downstream of the dam.

Sockeye, mostly bound for the upper Columbia's Okanogan and Wenatchee river basins in central Washington, have been on an upward trend with six of the highest eight Bonneville counts on record recorded these past six years.

"The 2012 return of sockeye to the Columbia River of nearly 521,000 adults was greater than the preseason forecast of 462,000 adults. The 2012 return proved to be the highest return on record since at least 1938 and continues the record breaking trend observed since 2008," according to the spring join staff report released last winter by the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife.

This year's return to the mouth of the Columbia was 185,500, down from recent years but still slightly higher than the recent 10-year average, which included the previous year's record run. That 2012 record run was more than 150,000 fish better than the previous high adult return total.

Early season estimates are for next year are for a return of 345,900 adult sockeye to the mouth of the Columbia, including 282,200 Okanogan and 63,500 Wenatchee fish. That would be the third highest on record. The record return was an estimated total of 521,000 in 2012.

"A near record abundance of [sockeye] jacks in 2013 seemingly points to an Okanogan run size similar to the record run of 2012," according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's Jeff Fryer, who prepared the 2014 Columbia River sockeye forecasts. Jacks are precocious fish that return to freshwater after one year in the ocean, and to large extent presage the return of older age broodmates, such as 4-year-olds.

"However the jack predictor may not prove as reliable as in the past due to the Skaha hatchery program, which comprises 10 percent of the Okanogan run but is 50 percent jacks, and the fact that sockeye runs up and down the coast saw record jack returns in 2013 (Kim Hyatt, DFO, personal communication)," Fryer's Dec. 11 sockeye forecast memo says. Skaha Lake is located along the course of the Okanagan River in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada. Hatchery outplants have been used in recent years as part of tribal efforts to reintroduce sockeye in areas where the species had become depleted.

"Either there are going to be huge sockeye returns up and down the coast in 2014, or some change in the ocean has resulted in high jack abundance. NOAA does rate the ocean environment facing juveniles outmigrating in 2012 (which will return as age 4 fish in 2014) as the fifth best in 15 years," Fryer's memo says.

"However, ocean upwelling variables were among the worst for salmon survival in those 15 years and these variables have among the best correlation with sockeye survival," Fryer said.

Fryer's forecast memo called the forecast a "cautious approach," meaning higher, rather than lower returns would most likely be expected.

"My forecast of Okanogan Age 4 sockeye using my traditional jack predictor would be 377,400 fish. An alternative is to use Osoyoos Lake smolt abundance to forecast two ocean fish similar to how I forecast one-ocean fish. Using this method results in a forecast of 282,200 Age 4 Okanogan sockeye salmon."

The Okanogan River's Osoyoos Lake, which stretches from north-central Washington into British Columbia, is the primary rearing area for Okanogan sockeye.

"The second largest cohort is typically Age 4 Wenatchee sockeye," Fryer said of fish that originate in central Washington's Wenatchee River basin. The Wenatchee, like the Okanogan, feeds into the Columbia.

"My forecast for this run using McNary smolt indices has always been poor so last year I switched to using Wenatchee smolt trap estimates. However, high flows in 2012 resulted in few sockeye being trapped, thus resulting in useless estimates.

"Instead I used the Lake Wenatchee acoustic trawl survey data collected for our Accords project for which we have only two data points," Fryer said. "My forecast of 52,900 Age 4 Lake Wenatchee sockeye is high historically, although 36,800 returned last year and the run does appear to be on an upswing."

The forecast for Snake River sockeye returns next year is 1,200 fish to the mouth of the Columbia, which would be slightly higher than the 2013 actual return of an estimated 1,100 adult fish. The Snake River sockeye, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, swim some 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to spawning grounds and Sawtooth Hatchery in central Idaho.

Upriver bright fall chinook returns in 2014 to the Snake and mid- and upper Columbia are expected to be "similar to 2013," according to preliminary estimates from the ODFW and WDFW.

Similar would be very, very good. Last year's preseason forecast was for a return of 555,400 adult upriver bright fall chinook. The actual return was nearly double that. And the jack count at Bonneville was 111,040 through late last week, which was the third highest tallied since peaks in 1985 and 1986.

While the adult return last year was very high by recent standards, comparisons are difficult to make.

"Back in the good old days the fishing rate was pretty high" in the lower Columbia, according to the ODFW's Kathryn Kostow, who has served in 2013 as chair of the Technical Advisory Committee.

TAC's federal, state and tribal fisheries officials throughout the season produce run-size estimates, and updates, for salmon and steelhead stocks returning to the Columbia system.

Catch rates in the lower river and ocean in the 1940s into the 1960s were as high as 70 percent of the adult fall chinook run. Non-tribal sport and commercial fishers are now allowed to take up to 15 percent of the upriver run, on the highest predicted returns. Catches are now limited to assure minimal impacts on wild Snake River and upper Columbia fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The upriver run is comprised of stocks produced upstream of Bonneville Dam, and includes URB, Bonneville Pool Hatchery tules -- a stock primary originating from Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery and a portion of the so-called mid-Columbia brights. Most of the URB chinook are destined for the Hanford Reach area of the Columbia River, Priest Rapids Hatchery, areas upstream of Priest Rapids Dam, and the Snake River. Smaller URB components are destined for the Deschutes and Yakima rivers. Snake River wild fall chinook are a sub-component of the URB stock.

The fishing was also good this past late-summer-fall. At the Columbia' river mouth in the Buoy 10 zone anglers caught and kept 25,900 chinook in 64,500 angler trips from Aug. 1-Sept. 1. They also caught and released an estimated 16,600 chinook.

The fall season yielded 31,900 chinook during 141,500 angler trips in the late summer-fall season in the lower Columbia. Anglers there also caught and released 9,700 chinook. An additional 2,600 jack fall chinook were caught and kept in the area from just upstream of Astoria, Ore., to Bonneville Dam.

The 2013 return of shad to the Columbia River was about 4 million, a bit higher than the 10-year average of 2.9 million. Fishermen took notice, with a record catch of 194,900 during 19,000 angler trips in the lower Columbia, and 12,500 caught in the lower Willamette River through June 2.

Spring chinook forecasts issued earlier this month also announced increased expectations. The overall upriver forecast is for a return of 227,000 upriver spring chinook, which would be nearly double the 123,110-fish return in 2013 and the third highest in recent history.

For more information about the forecasts go to:

Preliminary Forecasts Show Strong 2014 Columbia Basin Fish Returns for Sockeye, Spring/Fall Chinook
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 20, 2013

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