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Gillnetters Fall Short of Harvest Target in
Tuesday Fishery; Heavy Sea Lion Presence Cited

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 10, 2015

(Ron Malast photo) Marine mammals including two species of sea lions create a gauntlet between the Pacific Ocean and salmon spawning beds. With 57 percent of the remaining harvest still available to commercial gillnetters, the Columbia River Compact states of Oregon and Washington opened an 8-hour non-Indian gillnet fishery Tuesday.

Based on previous landing information, 1,000 upriver spring chinook salmon remained in the commercial quota, but fishing fell short of the mark, with 111 boats netting just 757 adult spring chinook salmon that averaged 12.5 pounds.

This week's commercial fishery followed the March 31 fishery, which yielded 980 spring chinook salmon, averaging 12.4 pounds, a catch that was spread out over 94 boats. The total commercial catch this year is 1,737 adult spring chinook salmon.

This is the last non-Indian gillnet fishery until an update of the salmon run the first week of May.

The poorer than expected catch could be due to the presence of sea lions in the lower Columbia River, which had some gillnetters suggesting the quota should be saved until after May 1, when they expect most of the California sea lions to begin migrating back down the Oregon Coast.

"Right now, the most serious problem we have is the number of mammals in the Columbia River," said gillnetter and Salmon for All member Jack Marincovic. "The smelt are gone, so they've stayed to eat the prime fish. We waited too long to do something about it and now it's too late."

Rick Olson, gillnetter, suggested saving the commercial quota until "a month from now to see if the sea lions move out of the river, instead of feeding the sea lions," referring to sea lions eating fish out of his net.

Stellar sea lions are present nine months of the year in the Bonneville Dam tailrace, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's March 25 pinniped report. Feasting mostly on salmon, steelhead and sturgeon, they begin to arrive in late summer and stay until the following spring.

Corps researchers have documented 23 individual Steller sea lions below the dam. Of these, 16 were repeat visitors from years past and seven were previously unidentified and may be new to Bonneville.

California sea lions showed up at Bonneville Dam in early February. Sixteen were present at the dam March 10, and 21 were counted the following day.

It's in the lower Columbia River where the gillnetters are fishing, that sea lions are present in large numbers. During a recent presentation to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council state officials said the number of California sea lions witnessed at the mouth of the Columbia and in the lower river swelled over the past two years -- from spring peaks that were generally less than 250 from 2005-2012 to highs of 750 in 2013 and nearly 1,500 in 2015 at Astoria near the river mouth.

(See CBB, March 13, 2015, Sea Lions Showing Large Presence in Lower Columbia; Smelt First, Then Come Spring Chinook)

The Compact sets fishing days for both recreational anglers and commercial gillnetters. It bases seasons and limits on the expected run size, fishing effort (number of anglers or gillnet boats) and the number of fish passing Bonneville Dam.

For commercial fishing, it also considers results from test drift fishing, mostly to ensure that the ratio of spring chinook salmon to winter steelhead favors the salmon. Steelhead numbers typically peak by mid-March, then decline as the fish move into tributaries.

However, of the 23 test drifts in the lower river on April 5, the day before the Compact meeting, 10 drifts were by one gillnetter who, according to Compact staff, chose to reduce his net length and the period of time he left the net in the river to avoid sea lion activity. He caught ten salmon.

As of Tuesday, the day before the Compact met for the second time this week, this time to set a recreational fishery, the count of spring chinook salmon that had passed Bonneville Dam was 3,352, far higher than the five year average of 1,000 fish on the same date. Fifty percent of the spring chinook run typically passes the dam, based on a five-year average, on May 7. The preseason forecast for the spring chinook run was 232,500 fish.

At its meeting Monday to discuss the Tuesday gillnet fishery, Compact staff initially proposed a 6-hour fishery, 10 am to 4 pm.

Worried that the number of fish in the river is rising and that more commercial gillnetters would fish, staff recommended two additional options for fishing: set a short day to ensure gillnetters do not exceed the quota, or set landing limits.

Landing limits would be based on the remaining balance of the commercial fishing quota divided by the expected number of participating vessels. Most gillnetters testifying on the Compact conference call favored a longer day beginning earlier than the six-hour staff recommendation, and to incorporate landing limits.

The Compact states of Oregon and Washington agreed and set the one day non-Indian gillnet fishery from 8 am to 4 pm, giving the gillnetters time to fish an extra two hours earlier in the morning.

The fishery was opened Tuesday to the Columbia River with the exception of select sanctuaries at Grays River, Elochoman River, Abernathy Creek, Cowlitz River, Kalama River, Lewis River, Washougal River and Sandy River, all in the lower Columbia River.

Since the fishery is limited to hatchery spring chinook salmon with fin-clipped adipose fins, only Columbia River commercial fishers who have completed a state-sponsored workshop to learn live capture commercial fishing techniques could participate. This enables the commercial fishers to release wild salmon. Only 4.25 inch mesh drift nets (maximum size) were allowed.

The Columbia River Compact has not scheduled another meeting and anticipates its next meeting to occur after the salmon run update in early May.

Gillnetters Fall Short of Harvest Target in Tuesday Fishery; Heavy Sea Lion Presence Cited
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 10, 2015

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