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Fish Managers Approve
More Fishing for Tribal Gill Netters

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 23, 2004

Tribal gill netters ventured out on the mainstem Columbia in pursuit of "summer" chinook salmon and sockeye this week and next despite the recognition that their harvest to-date has already far surpassed their allowed "impact" on the Snake River-bound portion of the chinook run.

Fishery managers sitting on the Columbia River Compact noted Tuesday that a large surplus of harvestable upper Columbia summer chinook remained and that few, if any, additional impacts would be absorbed by their Snake River cousins if the fisheries were to proceed. Tuesday's Compact was made up of Bill Tweit and Neal Coenen, representing respectively the directors of the Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife.

During the summer management period, from June 1 through July 31, tribal fisheries are allowed up to a 5 percent impact on summer chinook. Chinook passing Bonneville Dam during that time frame at counted as summer chinook. Chinook passing the dam before June 1 are accounted for as "spring" chinook and those passing after July 31 are judged fall chinook.

The fish, however, don't strictly follow the calendar. Tribal staff had, based on analysis of PIT tags implanted in a portion of the chinook that the combined impacts from their spring and summer season harvests exceeded the 5 percent impact. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission biologist Stuart Ellis said analysis was ongoing to try better pinpoint the impact.

A July 20 tribal staff report says the PIT tagged Snake River summer chinook returns "showed the majority of the return (and presumably the harvest) occurred in mid- to late May," not June as is presumed in fishery management decision making. Ellis said that it is likely the entire 5 percent impact was incurred in the spring harvests.

A growing wealth of data from PIT tags, which have been put to much greater use in recent years, shows that the Snake River return may be even earlier timed than has been believed.

"We have to figure out how to do better" in calculating that timing, Ellis said. The Snake River "summer chinook" for the most part arrive much earlier than the upper Columbia part of the run. The Snake River chinook are part of the Snake River spring/summer "evolutionarily significant unit" that is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Columbia River summer chinook are not listed.

The tribal request for additional fishing time is based on the fact that 99 percent, or more, of the Snake River chinook have passed through the reservoirs above Bonneville where the fisheries will take place. The last adult Snake River summer chinook observed passing Bonneville was on July 7; the last one passing McNary Dam was observed on July 13. McNary is the last dam the fish pass before reaching the Snake River fork in the road.

"What's done is done," Ellis said of the unwitting accumulation of impacts in May.

Coenen said he could support the fishery request as long as they are "not likely to engender impacts."

The Compact approved mainstem fisheries from 6 a.m. Wednesday, July 21 to 6 p.m. Saturday July 24 and from 6 a.m. Monday, July 26 to 6 p.m. Saturday July 31 in the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day pools. The tribal gill-netters will be allowed to keep and sell chinook, coho, sockeye, steelhead, walleye, carp, and shad. Sturgeon may not be sold.

The summer chinook and sockeye runs in the mainstem have been strong but are waning. The summer steelhead run is beginning to build.

Through July 19 the summer chinook count at Bonneville was 86,393 adults, which don't count lower mainstem sport and non-tribal commercial fisheries. The updated forecast is for a total summer chinook adult return to the Columbia of 96,400. Five percent of such a run would be 4,280 chinook.

Of those 53,689 had passed the mid-Columbia's Priest Rapids Dam and 8,413 had reached the lower Snake River's Lower Granite Dam, the eighth project the chinook must pass on their return to hatcheries and spawning areas. Ellis estimated that the surplus -- beyond what is needed for natural spawning and hatchery needs -- is at least 17,000 Columbia chinook.

Tribal gill-net fisheries already completed, combined with a 780-fish assumed platform catch through July 31, total 6,743 chinook (6.9 percent of the overall upriver summer chinook run). With anticipated catches of as many as 1,500 in each of the coming weeks that total could swell to 9,743 or 10.1 percent of the upriver summer chinook run. That large of a catch is unlikely, however, Ellis said. The daily counts at Bonneville have fallen from a peak of more than 8,000 in June to counts this week of 700-800.

The sockeye run has proven to be the strongest since 1987 with the current forecast return to the Columbia at 124,700. Already 122,202 had passed Bonneville through July 19 but counts have dwindled drastically to less than 200 in recent days. The vast majority are bound for the upper Columbia's Wenatchee and Okanogan drainages. A small portion of the fish are endangered Snake River sockeye that are the product of a captive broodstock program in central Idaho. Through July 19, 106 sockeye had crossed Lower Granite Dam.

Tribal fishers have caught 4,329 sockeye to-date and expect to catch 200 more. That resulting total would represent a 3.6 percent impact, barely half the 7 percent impact allowed under the terms of the management agreement with the state.

The steelhead catch to-date is estimated to be 4,692 during tribal platform and gill-net fisheries during the summer management period. That harvest is expected to climb by 1,800 fish this week and next with a strong flow of fish (3,000-4,000 per day) passing Bonneville.

One fish caught last week by the Yakama Nation's Randy Settler was a bit of a surprise -- an Atlantic salmon.

"It's the first one that I'm aware of" that has been caught in the Columbia River by tribal fishers, Ellis said. The fish was likely an escapee from fish farms in the Puget Sound or British Columbia.

"It's not out of line that a fish would stray quite a ways," Ellis said. The presence of the non-native fish -- used in aquaculture operations -- has been noted Puget Sound and Washington coastal streams and British Columbia.

The ODFW's Curt Melcher said he had recollections of Columbia River sightings of Atlantic salmon in prior years, but called such sightings "extremely rare."

Barry Espenson
Fish Managers Approve More Fishing for Tribal Gill Netters
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 23, 2004

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