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2004 Good Harvest Year for Spring Chinook;
Summer Season Set

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 11, 2004

Columbia River sport and commercial fishers harvested more than 64,000 spring chinook salmon this year - one of the better catches in recent decades -- despite the fact that the upriver spawning run did not return in the numbers that fishery officials had anticipated.

The final upriver spring chinook count at Bonneville Dam, the first hydro project encounter on journey to spawning grounds and hatcheries, was 170,344. The upriver run is composed of those stocks bound for locales above Bonneville. When the sport and non-tribal commercial harvest of upriver stocks, 23,221, is added in, the overall adult upriver spring chinook return to the Columbia was 193,565. That's slightly more than half of the 360,700 fish predicted in a forecast produced last winter but still would be the fourth best count since the early 1970s.

The past four year's returns to the river mouth have been strong with a record (since counts began in 1938) 416,500 in 2001, 295,100 in 2002 and last year's 208,900 upriver spring chinook adult return. The upriver spring chinook run exceeded 100,000 only three times during the 1980s and 1990s and sunk as low as 10,200 in 1995.

Preliminary figures show that overall, sport fishers caught and kept 23,740 spring chinook in the mainstem waters from Bonneville Dam to the mouth of the river and 970 in mainstem reservoirs between Bonneville and McNary dams. About three-quarters the fish caught were fin-clipped upriver spring chinook. The balance were salmon stocks originating in lower river tributaries, including Oregon's Willamette River. Anglers were only allowed to keep marked hatchery fish, a rule imposed to protect wild runs, such as the Snake River and Upper Columbia spring chinook, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Sport fishing, which began in earnest in early April, was ended May 6 on the mainstem when it became obvious that the upriver run would not approach the number forecast in preseason. A lowered forecast meant that the catch in hand already surpassed allowable impacts on the upriver run, a surrogate for the impact on the listed fish. Ten percent mortality is presumed for the unmarked fish - many of which are ESA-listed fish - that are released. The sport and non-tribal commercial fishers are allowed a 2 percent impact on the upriver run.

The non-Indian gill net fleet harvested 13,546 chinook in the lower Columbia mainstem during March outings, including 5,475 upriver fish. The commercial catch too was limited by ESA impacts.

The commercial fleet also caught 9,400 spring chinook in so-called "select" areas - off-channel fisheries near the river mouth that target hatchery chinook that are returning to sites where they were released from net pens as juveniles.

The overall lower river impacts on upriver spring chinook were 2.43 percent - slightly above the limits established in a management agreement between the states of Oregon and Washington and treaty fishing tribes. That agreement was endorsed via a biological opinion by NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for protecting and restoring listed salmon populations.

The mainstem sport catch was the second best since the 1970s, as was mainstem commercial harvest. Both rank behind 2001, a year when a record number of upriver spring chinook returned to the Columbia.

The tribal harvest in the mainstem reservoirs above Bonneville are expected to be over 17,000 fish. A final tally has yet to be made but tribal commercial and subsistence and ceremonial harvests are expected to result in an upriver impact of 9 percent, the level allowed under the terms of the management agreement.

"We think we got extremely close" to the impact limit, said Stuart Ellis, a biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Fishing effort on the tail of the upriver run was unexpectedly strong with 148 tribal nets deployed during a final 2 -day fishery during the week leading up to Memorial Day.

The Willamette River spring chinook run is tracking at a rate that could well exceed 120,000, well above the preseason forecast of 109,000 adult fish to the Columbia's mouth. The count as of May 25 was 78,000 - a record through that date, according to Curt Melcher of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. That count at Willamette Falls does not include the fish harvested in the mainstem. The record return is 132,000.

Beginning on June 1 chinook passing Bonneville Dam are counted as "summer" chinook, not spring chinook.

A relatively strong summer chinook return of 102,800 adults is forecast with 33,700 of those fish bound for the Snake River drainage and 69,100 to the upper Columbia. The spring/summer chinook grouping originating in the Snake River basin was expected to number 200,700 in total but will be considerably smaller given the lower-than-anticipated return of the spring chinook portion of that run.

The first week of summer chinook counts at Bonneville witnessed a slow building in numbers from a little over 1,000 on the first day of the month to 2,500 on June 6. Chinook passing Bonneville are counted as summers through July 31.

"Obviously it's very early but I'm fairly confident we're on track to reach the preseason forecast," Melcher said. A mainstem sport fishing season is scheduled to open June 16 but forecasts for summer chinook and sockeye salmon likely do not warrant commercial season. The sockeye forecast is for a return of 80,000 fish. Non-tribal impacts for both sockeye and summer chinook are limited to 1 percent to protect endangered Snake River sockeye and threatened Snake River spring/summer chinook. The first Columbia mainstem summer chinook sport seasons since 1973 were held in 2002 and 2003.

Given the tight impact limit and the fact the two species move upriver at roughly the same time, strong returns of both are necessary before gill net fisheries are feasible. CRITFC's member tribes are allowed a 5 percent impact. Tribal commercial fisheries were approved in 2003 for the first time in nearly four decades.

The 2003 summer chinook run totaled 116,900 fish, compared with 2002's record of 129,000. The 2003 run the second highest since 1960, when 125,700 summer chinooks returned. The tribes last had a directed commercial gillnet fishery for summer chinook in 1965.

"We'll look at the run size as we go" to see if it is larger than anticipated, Melcher said. Federal, state and tribal fisheries experts meeting as the Technical Advisory Committee produce the run size forecasts. The state-tribal management agreement sets an escapement goal of 85,000 upriver summer chinook past Bonneville. A mid-season upgrade of the summer chinook run forecast enabled last year's tribal commercial fishery.

The upriver summer chinook are destined for production areas and hatcheries above Priest Rapids Dam in the upper Columbia and above Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.

Barry Espenson
2004 Good Harvest Year for Spring Chinook; Summer Season Set
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 11, 2004

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