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Columbia Tribes Get First Summer Chinook Season in 38 Years

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 11, 2003

Lower Columbia River treaty tribes next week will launch their first commercial gillnet fishery directed at summer chinook salmon in 38 years thanks to a higher-than-expected return that will likely be the second-largest since 1960.

The Columbia River Compact, representing the states of Oregon and Washington, and fishers from Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes agreed Tuesday to open a tribal commercial gillnet fishery for summer chinook from 6 a.m. Monday, July 14, to 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 16. The fish will be sold to commercial buyers and made available to the public at over-the-bank sales sites throughout the Columbia Basin.

The Compact, which sets Columbia River mainstem commercial fisheries, last week approved the sale of chinook and steelhead caught in tribal platform and hook-and-line-fisheries from July 3 through 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 16. Sales of walleye, carp and shad are also allowed. Any sockeye salmon or sturgeon caught during the fisheries can be kept for tribal subsistence purposes but cannot be sold. The fisheries are open throughout Zone 6, a 150-mile stretch of the Columbia between the Bonneville Dam and McNary Dam near Umatilla.

"The summer chinook counts at Bonneville Dam are strong," Davis Washines, a member of the Yakama Nation, told Compact representatives. "The tribes look at the opportunities presented by the 2003 summer chinook return with much hope and anticipation for the future."

Washines, taking part in the Compact meeting via telephone, said that he had not even been born yet in 1965, the last time the tribal gillnetters got a chance to target summer chinook salmon. He said he "will be honored to make this report to the whole (Yakama Nation tribal) Council." The Yakama Council was in session Tuesday as well.

Steve King, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director's representative to the Compact, also noted the historical significance.

"If we adopt this it will be the first fishery since the two-day fishery in 1965," King said. Summer chinook have not been targeted by non-Indian commercial fishers since 1964. Some summer chinook have been taken incidentally during sockeye fisheries in past years.

While not ready to declare victory in the effort to rebuild the stock, he noted that the summer chinook runs have been much improved in recent years after hitting rock bottom in the 1990s.

The tribal, state and federal fishery officials that comprise the Technical Advisory Team on Monday updated their 2003 summer chinook run forecast to 120,000 fish to the river's mouth. That would make this year's run the second highest since 1960, when 125,700 summer chinook returned. The highest count since 1960 was 2002's 129,000 adult fish.

Since the June 1 beginning of the summer chinook count, a total of 89,745 adults and 9,439 "jacks" had already passed Bonneville Dam through this past Tuesday. Last winter TAC had predicted 87,600 adults would return, but pushed that estimate up to 100,000 two weeks ago as a steady stream of the fish coursed upriver. The forecast was updated again this week after counts continued at relatively high levels (1,500 to 2,300 daily) over the past week. The chinook are counted at the dam as summers through July 31.

The tribal gillnet fishery is scheduled at a time when it is expected to have the least impact on protected fish that are passing upriver to spawn -- the Snake River summer chinook and sockeye are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act while the chinook and sockeye now bound for the Upper Columbia are not.

The Snake River chinook stock normally swim upriver earlier than the upper Columbia stock, according to Stuart Ellis, harvest management biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal fish Commission. Historical averages show that by July 2, 75 percent of the summer chinook passage at Ice Harbor Dam would be complete. Ice Harbor is the first dam the fish encounter after reaching the Snake River. On the other hand, only 25 percent of the Upper Columbia stock will have reached Priest Rapids Dam by that date.

Through this Tuesday, 18,083 summer chinook had reached Ice Harbor and the daily counts have been shrinking in recent days. The seasonal total at Priest Rapids was 43,196 through Tuesday with relatively high counts -- up to 3,600 -- over the past week.

The sockeye, both Columbia and Snake stocks, are also moving up the river rapidly. A total of 34,908 sockeye had passed Bonneville through Tuesday with 22,901 reaching Priest Rapids, where the daily counts have jumped in recent days. Only 26 sockeye have passed Ice Harbor through July 8.

Historical averages show that the sockeye run past Bonneville would be 86 percent complete by July 7. TAC this week updated the sockeye forecast to an expectation of 40,000. Sockeye returns had numbered well under 100,000 annually until the run spiked to nearly 94,000 in 2000 and hit 116,623 in 2001. The 2002 count dropped to 46,629. The vast majority of the sockeye are headed for the Wenatchee and Okanogan rivers.

The gillnet fishery's timing "has the benefit of fishing after the vast majority of the Snake River fish have cleared," Ellis said. He said he anticipated minimal additional impacts on sockeye, because of the timing and the fact that the smaller sockeye can for the most part slip through the 7 -inch gill net mesh that is required of the fishery.

A fishery management agreement allows the tribes a 5 percent impact on both the summer chinook and sockeye runs, while non-tribal fishers are allowed 1 percent. That means, with the revised forecast, the tribes can haul in 6,000 chinook and 2,000 sockeye.

The tribes estimate that, through July 5, about 550 chinook, 1,470 sockeye, and 2,640 steelhead had been harvested. Those estimates will be revised by Friday or early next week.

Ellis told the Compact that the sockeye catch in the platform fishery will be monitored closely to assure that it does not broach the 5 percent impact limit.

The tribes expect to harvest between 1,500 and 3,000 chinook and from 1,000 to 1,500 steelhead during the gillnet fishery.

Ellis said the commercial fishery for gillnet-caught summer chinook is significant.

"The tribes have basically waited all this time to establish a full commercial fishing opportunity on these fish," he said.

But Ellis too stopped short of saying it means summer chinook salmon have recovered.

"We could say it's a rebound from both 1992 and 1995," when the runs reached only 15,150 fish and 15,052 fish, respectively, he said. "We're making progress. That's the message."

Ellis attributes the strong runs to good ocean conditions, which boosted survival. Also, like the spring chinook run earlier this year, the summer chinook run appears to be dominated by brawnier 5-year-old fish.

Tribal sellers can be found at various locations between Bonneville Dam and McNary Dam. Major sales locations include the Marine Park at Cascade Locks, Lone Pine at The Dalles and the boat launch near Roosevelt, Wash. Buyers should bring sufficient ice and coolers to keep fish fresh. Sales are cash only. Customers can call toll-free (888) 289-1855 for more information.

During a Technical Management Team meeting this week, CRITFC asked dam operating agencies to provide consistently full pools at Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day reservoirs to accommodate the tribal fishery. Reservoirs operated at consistently high levels, CRITFC said, will ensure that tribal gillnets aren't tangled or hung up on debris, and that boats maintain access to fishing grounds. Anything less, CRITFC said, could lead to damaged nets or boats, negatively impacting tribal fishing income.

While CRITFC asked that operators at the three reservoirs to keep pools within 1 foot of full, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said it could keep the Bonneville pool within 1.5 foot of full and, with some juggling, would attempt to keep The Dalles and John Day pools at similar levels.

CRITFC represents the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and the Yakama Nation.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Columbia Tribes Get First Summer Chinook Season in 38 Years
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 11, 2003

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