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Colville Tribes' Selective Fishing Gear Tests
Show Low Wild Summer Chinook Mortality

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 6, 2009

Central Washington's Colville Tribes have seen early successes in tests of selective fishing gear that they say can increase the viability of wild salmon populations by allowing increased spawner escapement and lessening the straying of hatchery fish on to spawning grounds.

The tribe is now encouraging others -- sport and commercial fishers on the lower Columbia River, in particular -- to jump on board.

"We as salmon managers must begin to use our harvesting efforts and methods as a tool to ensure the abundance and security of this precious resource," the tribes' Joe Peone told the Columbia River Compact last week. "The Colville Tribes believe that harvest management must step up now and make a positive contribution to summer chinook viability."

The Compact, which sets Columbia mainstem commercial fishing seasons, is comprised of representatives of the Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife directors. The two states also co-manage mainstem recreational fisheries.

The Upper Columbia summer chinook stock is on a bit of a rebound thanks to hatchery supplementation programs and habitat improvements. The 1980s and 1990s were bleak with average returns of only 19,800 and 15,500 adults respectively, according the Jan. 26 ODFW-WDFW joint staff report.

The summer chinook became hemmed in when the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941 blocked access to more than 500 miles of upper Columbia habitat. The summer chinook's range was further reduced with the completion in 1961 of Chief Joseph Dam 50 miles downstream.

No commercial fisheries for summer chinook were allowed between 1964 and 2005; no sport fisheries were allowed between 1974 and 2001. Since completion of the Columbia River hydro system, summer chinook redds are found in the Columbia, Wenatchee, Okanogan, Methow, Similkameen, Chelan and Entiat rivers, according to the joint staff report.

The 2009 preseason forecast is for a return of 70,700 adult Upper Columbia summer chinook to the mouth of the Columbia

Seasons set in recent years have not required live-capture commercial equipment or catch-and-release sport fishing. The Colville Tribes say selective fishing is needed to assure needed wild summer escapement to spawning grounds and provide broodstock for hatchery programs.

"... our modeling assessments indicate that the Colville Tribes' selective fishing alone cannot ensure sufficient escapement of wild summer chinook in the face of high ocean and river exploitation" Peone said of needed wild returns to the upper Columbia and Okanogan rivers. He cited ocean and lower river harvests that target nearly 70 percent of the summer chinook and the travails of passing over nine mainstem dams, which cause 15 percent mortality.

The tribes last year started evaluations of selective fishing gear with the encouragement, and funding, from federal agencies charged with assuring protected salmon and steelhead stocks aren't jeopardized. Those stock listed under the Endangered Species Act include endangered Upper Columbia River steelhead and spring chinook salmon.

The tests were approved as part of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's 2007-2009 fish and wildlife program budget and were cemented in May with the signing of a memorandum of agreement that calls for continued testing through 2010 and deployment of selective gear if appropriate through 2017.

The MOA was signed by the tribes, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. BPA provides funding for the Council program and for much of the work called for in the MOA. The selective fish gear evaluation and deployment is earmarked for $2.8 million over the 10-year span.

The MOA project narratives say "live-capture selective fishing gears have the potential to harvest 20 to 60 hatchery fish for every wild fish or non-target fish mortality. These gears allow tribal harvests to therefore occur at much lower mortalities to ESA-listed species. Use of the gears also remove excess numbers of hatchery-origin fish from escapements, thereby increasing the productivity of the natural spawning populations."

"Results should also have wide applicability throughout the Columbia Basin to increase harvest of hatchery stocks while providing increased survival of listed wild populations."

So far the Colville's have only been tested the gear on an unlisted stock -- the Upper Columbia summer chinook. There were 479 hatchery chinook caught during tribal ceremonial and subsistence fisheries last summer using beach and purse seines and small mesh tangle nets. Also swept in were 297 unmarked wild fish that were released. Only 26 wild summer chinook were killed -- 25 of them in the tangle nets.

Peone said that the tangle nets might not be an option in summer when the river water is too warm and the fish become easily stressed while tangled in the small-mesh gill-nets. The fish can't be left in the nets for long. The tangle nets are used on the lower Columbia during spring chinook fisheries and could be appropriate upriver in spring as well, Peone said.

The seines performed with a direct mortality rate of well below 1 percent, according to Steve Smith, a consultant for the tribes. The purse and beach seines basically encircle the fish and allow hatchery fish to be plucked out and fish without a fin clip left in the water. Keith Kutchins supervised the seining operation, which leaves the captured fish, essentially, free swimming.

"He said they're very calm. They're not stressed," Smith said. The purse seine experiment in all netted 544 sockeye salmon and 314 hatchery and 112 wild summer chinook without a wild fatality. The beach seining netted 28 sockeye, 184 hatchery chinook and 99 wild chinook. One wild summer chinook died.

The fishing took place at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers and in the Okanogan and at its confluence with the Similkameen.

A summer chinook hatchery supplementation focused in the Similkameen and the Okanogan releases a total of 476,000 yearling fish annually from net pens. And in good years the wild component, which includes adult returns that are the progeny of supplemented fish, can make up 60 to 70 percent of the run. The summer chinook are produced in Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries.

"It's about the most successful chinook hatchery program in the entire basin" in the good years, Smith said. He did acknowledge that occasionally, overwarm water conditions and other factors can cause dieoffs.

The Okanogan is in an arid ecosystem and has a relatively flat pitch in comparison to many Northwest rivers.

"But it's tremendous habitat," Smith said, comparing it to southern Idaho where mainstem spawning fall chinook salmon once flourished. One of the problems with the habitat is sedimentation that has settled into spawning gravels.

The sedimentation problem is something the tribe hopes fish will fix themselves. A proposed Chief Joseph Hatchery, also earmarked for funding in the MOA, would allow the production an additional 2 million young summer chinook, of which 1.1 million would go to the Okanogan system and others (600,000) would be released at the base Chief Joseph Dam to feed terminal fisheries and in the Columbia.

It's projected that the increased production will result in an increased adult return above Wells Dam of from 6,000 to 29,000 annually.

"We're going to be using them to clean the gravels," Smith said of eventual increased numbers of wild fish thrashing the river bottom clean before depositing eggs.

The Colville Tribes call the late season salmon summer-fall chinook. The earliest arrivals seem to find their way higher up toward the headwaters and in tributaries.

"The later they get there the lower down they spawn," Peone said. The tribes have in recent years been outplanting some yearling spring chinook in the Okanogan, where that stock had been extirpated.

The summer chinook "harvestable surplus" is split annually between upriver and downriver non-Indian fishers and tribes. In recent years the Colville subsistence and ceremonial fisheries have not been able to harvest their entire allocation so have offered a share back to the states. That allows non-tribal fisheries more fishing opportunity.

"..., what is clear now is that granting harvest allocation from the Colville Tribal selective fishery to non-tribal non-selective fisheries only increases the mortality to wild fish, which is unacceptable to the Colville Tribes," Peone told that Compact.

He urged the states to immediately initiate research on selective fishing gears for commercial fisheries and to plan for selective sport fisheries this summer.

The states "are on the cusp" of having to consider implementing lower Columbia marked-selective summer chinook fisheries every year, according to Heather Bartlett, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Salmon and Steelhead Division manager. The WDFW bases such decisions on such factors as mark rates in each fishery, availability and feasibility of appropriate selective gear and broodstock management needs.

Until last year relatively low mark rates made selective fisheries unfeasible. Bartlett said the mark rate should be at least 50 percent for a selective summer chinook fisheries to be worthwhile. Last year anglers caught about 2,000 chinook in more than 50,000 angler trips or 1 fish per 25 trips. If every other fish caught had to be released, the kept-fish rate per unit of effort would be halved.

The overall mainstem harvest strategy adopted by the states and tribes "hedged our concerns for assuring abundant escapement and providing harvest," Bartlett said. That harvest framework limits all non-treaty fishing to minimal levels when the run size is below escapement.

At levels of low allowable harvest, up to a 50,000 run size, harvest opportunity should be allocated almost exclusively to upstream areas, to meet Colville and Wanapum needs as well as provide recreational fishing in the upstream areas which typically have limited salmon angling opportunities.

Mark rates are now "at the borderline" of justifying marked-selective sport fisheries, Bartlett said.

Colville Tribes' Selective Fishing Gear Tests Show Low Wild Summer Chinook Mortality
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 6, 2009

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