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Late Arriving Chinook Run Stalls Commercial Fishery

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - February 28, 2003

Lower Columbia River gill-net fishermen remain idle this week while they and fishery managers await the arrival of more of the targeted Willamette River spring chinook salmon to dilute the presence of their more strictly protected upriver cousins.

Columbia River Compact officials decided Wednesday that fishing must be forestalled until the numbers of spring chinook in the river is balanced more towards the Willamette fish and less toward upriver (those bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville Dam) salmon.

The decision was made following a test fishery Tuesday in which six boat operators cast their nets at a variety of locations in the lower river. The catch was evaluated to determine the mix of upriver vs. Willamette fish, and to assess the presence and potential mortality on steelhead. While the test fishery showed a stock profile more to the managers liking than it had seen a week earlier, it was decided to keep the non-Indian commercial fleet off the river at least until another test can be carried out Monday.

"It's not time to set additional fishing. We've used half of the impacts to-date. We need to make wise use of the other half," said Steve King, who represents the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director on the Compact. The Compact, which includes Oregon and Washington representatives, met via conference call Wednesday to consider mainstem commercial seasons.

The fishery management agreement that guides mainstem fisheries has strict limits on how much sport and tribal and non-Indian commercial fisheries can impact the upriver stocks. Upper Columbia and Snake river wild spring chinook are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The agreement between the states of Washington, lower Columbia treaty tribes and the federal NOAA Fisheries allows a 2 percent non-Indian and 9 percent tribal impact on the upriver spring chinook. The non-tribal limit is split with .59 percent allotted to commercial fishers and 1.11 given to sport anglers. Three-tenths is reserved as a buffer and to allow for special fisheries later in the season.

But, after only two days on the water last week, commercial fishers had exacted a 0.305 percent impact -- 52 percent of their allowable upriver spring chinook impact.

That initial lower Columbia River mainstem gill-net season was to include 15-hour fishing periods on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday last week and this week. But after only two days of fishing the Compact ended the fishery. The fishers had only been allowed to keep and sell 506 salmon and were required to release 551 fish that were marked with fin clips. That equates to a 47.9 percent mark rate -- marked salmon being those fish that are most certainly hatchery raised and not wild, ESA protected fish.

It was anticipated that the commercial fishers would catch as many as 2,100 fish over the six planned fishing days and take only a 0.08 percent impact. Given the predicted Willamette and upriver run sizes, it had been expected that the fishers would be able to catch as many as 17,500 Willamette spring chinook in February and March before they would pile up enough upriver impacts to end the fisheries.

But the fish have not cooperated. The Willamette fish have historically returned to the river earlier than the upriver fish and that trend was expected to be even more pronounced this year since the Willamette run is loaded with age 5 fish, which normally return even earlier than younger fish.

Based on pre-season run size expectations and historic trends, less than 10 percent of the chinook encountered by the commercial boats were expected to be headed above Bonneville Dam during the third week in February. But the fish netted last week, Feb. 17 and 19, were nearly 84 percent upriver fish.

"It's out of whack. We've never seen anything like this," said Patrick Frazier of the ODFW.

The impacts mounted quickly with the state agencies using a 50 percent mortality rate for the unmarked fish that are caught and released when fishers are using larger, 8 inches or more, mesh nets. The larger mesh tends to ensnarl the salmon around the gills and suffocate them.

It was hoped that the Willamette returns, which have a mark rate of 80 percent, would dominate the late February, early March parade of chinook into the river. The upriver mark rate is only about 50 percent. The impact limit on the Willamette run, which also has a listed wild component, is 15 percent.

This week's test fishery show that Willamette/upriver ratio had improved -- to about 50-50. But because of what are still relatively small numbers of Willamette chinook present as compared to upriver fish, continued fishing with the large-mesh nets would quickly push the fishers to the impact limit. That would not allow the gill netters to tap the relatively abundant Willamette run -- more than 109,000 adult fish.

"Clearly the Willamette fish aren't here yet and we're going to have the upriver fish here for another month or so," Bill Tweit, the WDFW director's representative to the Compact, said of the conflict.

Two commercial fishers testified Wednesday that they would like to see the Compact set a limited -- perhaps six-hour -- fishery for today (Feb. 28) -- essentially serving the function of a test fishery while allowing the fishers some economic lift. The prized fish bring a nice price, often in the range of $6 per pound, early in the season when the market is starved for local fish. Gary Soderstrom and Jack Marincovich both represented themselves and the Northwest Fishermen's Protective Union.

Other fishers, such as Les Clark of the Northwest Gillnetters Association, said it was better to use caution and assure a greater haul, albeit later in the season.

"We've way ahead of the fish," Clark said of the inevitable return of the Willamette fish. "We've got time. I don't want to see the impacts burned up." He said that future fisheries should await the collection of additional data from planned Monday test fishing. That information will include a reassessment of the Willamette/upriver stock composition, and the encounter rate for steelhead.

Tweit said he agreed with Clark, and also felt that the overall economic return would be better for the wait.

"These are high quality fish. I've got real faith that the market will hold for them," Tweit said.

Frazier said that the presence of so many upriver fish, for the most part 5-year-olds, is likely good. It could be a sign of a better than anticipated return, since that run is expected to be dominated by 4-year-old fish that arrive later.

The Compact considered a shift to smaller mesh nets -- the 4 -inch "tangle nets" that leave both unmarked chinook and steelhead in better shape for release. The predicted mortality is 25 percent for the tangle nets. Steelhead are strictly a sport fish so both marked and unmarked fish must be released from the nets.

But, because of a relatively high chinook to steelhead ratio detecting during Tuesday's tangle net test fishery, it was decided to wait. That ratio was 1-to-1.

"That's not conducive to a good tangle net fishery because of the high steelhead handle," Frazier said. Again, even at the projected 25 percent mortality rate for netted steelhead, the impacts would build quickly as compared to the number of chinook that could be harvested.

The Compact will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday to evaluate the results from Monday's test fishery and consider setting a commercial fishery.

Link information:

Barry Espenson
Late Arriving Chinook Run Stalls Commercial Fishery
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 28, 2003

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