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Spring Chinook Count Worrisome

by Associated Press
Statesman Journal, April 6, 2005

Drought, sea lions blamed for lowest numbers since 1949

A sea lion eats a chinook salmon near the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River at Cascade Locks. Biologists blame smaller numbers of salmon on feasting sea lions and drought. Through Sunday, the number of spring chinook that had passed through the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River is the fewest since 1949.

Biologists and other fish managers are saying that possible causes include drought and sea lions.

The prized fish also may be waiting longer before going upriver to spawn, said Robin Ehlke, a biologist in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"There's likely more than one thing going on here," Ehlke said in an interview with The Columbian of Vancouver. "The run may be late, we've got marine mammals in the fish ladder and there were droughtlike conditions in March with stream flows 65 percent of normal."

Fish managers in Oregon and Washington, known collectively as the Columbia River Compact, had been scheduled to meet Monday to consider additional commercial fishing seasons, but given the low fish numbers decided not to bother.

Recreational fishing seasons on the Columbia and Willamette rivers remain unchanged.

On the Willamette River, the picture isn't as bleak. As of Thursday, 281 springers, as the salmon are known, had passed through the fish ladder at Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

That total is slightly ahead of recent years, and on track to meet the predicted run of 116,900 spring chinook, biologists said.

In December, Oregon and Washington state and Native American tribal biologists predicted 254,100 spring chinook would head up the Columbia River for tributaries upstream of Bonneville Dam.

Through Sunday, typically the point at which 5 percent of the run has passed the dam, the count was 48 fish, compared with a 10-year average of 6,855 through April 3.

Figures for federally listed, nonhatchery wild Columbia steelhead were equally bleak in the "Winter Fact Sheet" issued Monday by biologists from Fish and Wildlife agencies in both states.

Before the run started, it had been estimated that 27,000 wild winter-run steelhead would enter the Columbia.

Through Sunday, 3,719 wild winter steelhead had passed the fish-counting station at Willamette Falls on the Willamette River.

Based on calculations that the Willamette portion of the wild run makes up 40 percent of the total wild winter steelhead returns to the Columbia, biologists said it looks as if the run will be about 55 percent of the 27,000 that had been forecast.

A big part of the problem on the Columbia is sea lions.

On Sunday, observers from Washington counted 14 California sea lions between the Hamilton Island boat ramp downstream from the dam and the entrance to the fish ladder, plus one sea lion in the fish ladder.

Joe Hymer, a Washington state fish biologist, said the last time the spring chinook count at Bonneville was so low was in 1949, when the combined spring count of adult and immature or "jack" salmon was about 50,000.

In the previous low year, 1995, the count by April 3 was 400 adult spring chinook and the final tally was 10,200, Hymer said.

Commercial test fishing with small mesh nets Sunday nights also has produced disappointing results and signs of high predation by marine mammals, Ehlke said.

"For the first week of April, we'd expect to see more than two to three chinook per drift," she said. "The good news is there was a greater percentage of upper Columbia fish, and that's a positive indicator" that the run may pick up later.

Half of the spring chinook usually have passed the dam by April 26, so scientists said it likely will be at least two weeks or more before they have a better sense of the strength of the run.

Associated Press
Spring Chinook Count Worrisome
Statesman Journal, April 6, 2005

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