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Tribes Seek Increased Harvest, Outplanting in 2001

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 12, 2001

The four lower Columbia River treaty tribes have offered a 2001 spring fishing proposal they say will share an expected a wealth of returning hatchery-produced upriver spring chinook salmon without blunting a parallel resurgence in wild, Endangered Species Act listed fish numbers.

A Dec. 15 biological assessment submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service asks that tribal fishers be allowed to "take" 13 percent of the spring run in commercial and ceremonial and subsistence fisheries. The states of Oregon and Washington earlier filed an incidental take permit requesting 2 percent of the harvest for non-tribal sport and commercial fishers.

The Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation also suggest a significant outplanting -- at least 19,200 -- of surplus hatchery returns not needed to refuel hatchery processes. The exact numbers and locations of the proposed outplantings are still being discussed, but the tribes would like to see large numbers of the unneeded hatchery fish allowed to spawn naturally, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"In all cases, the tribes want to avoid the senseless destruction of hatchery fish that return beyond broodstock needs," according to CRITFC proposal fact sheet. "The tribes believe that all fish can serve a purpose either for harvest or for restoration."

Last year a National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion set take limit for threatened Snake River spring/summer chinook at 9 percent. The federal agency is expected perhaps next month to issue an opinion for winter/spring fisheries. It would set allowable impacts on listed fish that migrate upriver alongside an overall spring chinook run that is expected to be 30 percent greater than the best run recorded since counts began in 1938.

"We're in the process of assessing it at this time," Peter Dygert, NMFS' fisheries management branch chief, said of the tribal proposal.

The request for an increased take limit "is certainly a consideration. Whether we do it is another question," Dygert said. NMFS would like to complete its opinion, and set the take limit, by mid-February so the states and tribes can settle allocation questions, which have vexed the process in the past, and set fishing seasons.

Last year, the tribes requested 9 percent take and the states asked for 2 percent of the NMFS' prescribed 9 percent total. NMFS eventually had to settle the issue, giving the tribes 8.5 percent and the states 0.5 percent.

The agency must weigh the consequence of increased harvests on wild populations that have been depressed for many years, Dygert said. Provisional recovery goals, to be revisited by NMFS-formed salmon recovery teams, call for Snake River spring chinook escapement of 31,000 fish past Ice Harbor Dam on a sustained basis.

"But there's no escaping the fact that we expect to see a lot of fish coming back" in 2001, Dygert said. The Upper Columbia run remains the weaker of the two runs.

Fishery officials have projected that 364,600 adult upriver spring chinook, destined for hatcheries and tributaries to the Snake and Columbia rivers above Bonneville Dam, will return to the Columbia. Such a return would be double the 2000 return and far surpass top previous return estimates -- 281,000 fish in 1955 and 280,400 in 1972. Both previous totals included adults and "jacks."

The upriver spring chinook usually begin returning to the Columbia in March with the run peaking in April and early May. Forecasters expect the run to be made up of 4-year-old fish, an estimated 330,000, with the remainder being 5-year-olds.

The Snake River spring/summer chinook "evolutionarily significant unit" was listed as threatened in 1992. The Upper Columbia spring chinook ESU was listed in 1999. The 2001 run is expected to include 39,300 Snake River and 6,300 Upper Columbia listed spring chinook.

It is that abundance that is the key to the tribes' proposal and provides its rationale for increased take limits. The tribes support the states' 2-percent proposal, as well, Hudson said.

Assuming a combined tribal/non-tribal take of 15 percent, the tribes project escapement of wild, listed Snake River fish would be 17,698 fish to Lower Granite Dam, the last hydro barrier faced by the fish on their way to tributary spawning and rearing areas.

That would be the largest escapement past Lower Granite since at least 1979, would double the 2000 escapement and would be almost five times the 1996-2000 average escapement, according to the fact sheet.

The escapement of wild Upper Columbia fish under the proposal is forecast at 4,553, the highest escapement past Priest Rapids Dam since 1993, 1.5 times the 2000 escapement and more than 3.5 times the 1996-2000 average.

The upriver return has surpassed 100,000 only seven times in the past 20 years. The 2000 return totaled 178,600 with the next best return since 1980 being 125,500 in 1986. The upriver spring chinook run had hit all-time lows as recently as 1995 when only 12,600 returned to spawn. The 1994 run was 21,400.

The "abundance-based harvest management approach is similar to that applied for ocean harvests," CRITFC noted.

Washington's Fish and Wildlife Department, though only recently launched into reviews of the tribal proposal, views favorably a key concept in the tribal document regarding a long-term harvest approach.

"We absolutely support an abundance-based approach based on the status of the listed stocks," said the WDFW's Bill Tweit. The proposal offers a "stepped harvest rate" responsive to changes in run size from year to year and linked to the projected run sizes of the Snake River and Upper Columbia listed runs. A WDFW opinion on this year's tribal harvest proposal is awaiting a more detailed evaluation of the risks posed by the proposed harvest. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife too will consider the results of that "risk assessment" requested of the Technical Advisory Committee.

The key question, said ODFW salmon fishery manager Steve King, is "do these harvest rates impede recovery to any significant degree?"

"I've look at it. I think it makes a lot of sense," King said of the tribes' stepped harvest rate proposal.

Both King and Tweit said state staffs are in ongoing discussions with the tribes regarding outplanting and other production issues.

"The tribes have done some good things. We don't necessarily agree with all of it," Tweit said.

The tribes say their proposal represents less than their 50 percent harvest right and is consistent with conservation of the spring chinook species. The proposed harvest rate approach is responsive to changes in abundance and is similar in concept to the management approach for Pacific Salmon Commission fisheries that received a no jeopardy opinion, according to the assessment.

"We have a biological assessment that makes sense," Hudson said. "What a year to do it -- all of this opportunity for fishermen and for rebuilding" depleted stocks.

The huge pulse in year-to-year returns is attributed to improved ocean conditions encountered by the fish and generally by favorable river conditions when this year's adults were migrating out to the ocean. Improved passage for migrants through the system, as well hatchery innovations, are also credited for improving survival.

The proposal not only accounts for vastly improved escapement but suggests hatchery surplus outplantings that represent "three times the number of wild fish that would be caught" in downstream fisheries, Hudson said.

The tribal proposal is for a harvest or impact of 825 (13.1 percent) on the upper Columbia wild run and 5,110 (13 percent) on the forecast Snake River wild run.

"Even after allowing for 20 percent prespawning mortality among the outplanted fish, 24,622 more spring chinook are expected to return to natural spawning areas in 2005 and 2006 than if zero fish were outplanted," according to CRITFC projections.

The conduct of the tribes' proposed winter, spring, and summer season fisheries will not result in jeopardy to ESA-listed fish because there is still a productive abundance of fish that will escape the Zone 6 with the fishery, according to the proposal.

Barry Espenson
Tribes Seek Increased Harvest, Outplanting in 2001
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 12, 2001

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