Chinook return is good, but fishing is slow
September 1, 2016
Fall chinook salmon passage at Bonneville Dam is within expectations, but catch of the fish is lagging in the popular Buoy 10 fishery for recreational anglers.
The finding prompted the two-state Columbia River Compact on August 25 to liberalize a catch restriction on unmarked chinook and coho salmon that had previously been set in place for the Buoy 10 fishery, and it added two new non-Indian commercial gillnetting nights to a fairly packed August of fishing for the gillnetters.
In addition, the fall chinook fishery began this week for Northwest tribes. This is the largest tribal fishery of the year, according to a news release from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which represents the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes.
Tribal fishers could harvest over 200,000 fall chinook throughout the season, representing roughly 3.4 million pounds of salmon in the marketplace.
The growth of the fall fishery over the years is the direct result of tribal restoration efforts that have steadily increased the number of adult salmon returning to the Columbia River system, CRITFC said.
“The fall harvest represents many things to the tribal fishers along the Columbia River,” said Patrick Luke, chairman of CRITFC. “The fall fishery is the economic backbone for our fishing communities, is the continuation of knowledge and tradition that has been passed down through generations, and represents decades of hard work and dedication to rebuilding salmon runs.”
He said the unique relationship between the tribes and salmon can be traced far back in time.
“That relationship is why the tribes will always fight for healthy salmon runs and to ensure that sustainable fish returns will continue to bless the Columbia River basin and its residents,” he concluded.
The news was not all good. Passage of Group A upriver steelhead at the dam has been very slow – about one half of expectations – as the U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee downgraded its pre-season run prediction to 123,400 fish (31,000 are wild).
The preseason forecast was 256,200. The Group A adjusted forecast combined with the preseason forecast of 25,800 Group B fish brings the total projection to 149,200 steelhead at Bonneville Dam.
Fish that pass July through October are categorized as either group A (less than 78 centimeters – 30.7 inches) or group B (greater than 78 cm). Group A generally pass the dam during July and move up into Columbia and Snake river tributaries, while Group B pass the dam around the end of August and primarily return to Snake River tributaries.
Counts of steelhead at Bonneville Dam through August 25 are 106,010 hatchery steelhead and 35,406 wild steelhead. Last year 171,198 hatchery steelhead and 70,542 wild steelhead had passed the dam by this date. The 10-year average for hatchery steelhead is 235,065 and 86,482 for wild steelhead. Passage at Bonneville Dam (July-October) is typically 50 percent complete by August 13.
The 2016 forecast for fall chinook entering the Columbia River is 960,200 fish, which is 74 percent of last year’s actual return, but 136 percent of the 2006-2015 10-year average of 705,600 fish.
Passage of the upriver fall chinook through Bonneville Dam is expected to hit nearly 628,000 adults. As of August 25, 60,945 adults and 7,657 jack fall chinook had passed Bonneville Dam, which is above the 10-year average of 39,782 fall adults and 6,761 jacks for that date. Passage is typically 50 percent complete by September 8.
Some 322,600 coho salmon are expected to enter the Columbia River, which is 73 percent of the 10-year average of 441,400 fish. It includes 132,900 early stock and 189,700 late stock. Passage of coho over Bonneville Dam is expected to total 84,300, which is 76 percent of the total ocean abundance of Columbia River coho destined for areas upriver of the dam.
Just 736 coho salmon and 189 coho jacks had passed the dam as of August 25, far below the 10-year average of 3,436 adults and 354 jacks. Last year at this time 860 adults and 205 jacks had passed by this date.
Some fishers, particularly the commercial gillnetters that participated in the Compact meeting said the poor catch could be due to higher than average water temperatures and lower than average water. The Columbia River at Bonneville Dam is currently at 72 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree higher than the 10-year average of 71 degrees, and is running at 123,000 cubic feet per second. The 10-year average is 159,000 cfs.
Compact staff proposed several changes for recreational, commercial gillnetting and commercial seining.
For the Buoy 10 fishery, effective September 4 and Moday September 5, allow retention of both clipped and unclipped chinook. Previously anglers had to return all unclipped fish on these days of the week.
The Buoy 10 fishery opened August 1 and chinook retention is open through September 5. Given a 6.5 percent impact on lower river hatchery fish and a 2.6 percent upriver bright impact, the staff projected anglers could take 48,500 chinook. Nearly 22,000 hatchery coho are also allocated to this fishery.
The Buoy 10 catch through August 23 is about 10,200 fall chinook and 1,600 coho from 56,900 angler trips. Effort has been high, but catch rates so far have been less than the Compact has modeled, the staff said.
Catch estimates for August 1 – 14 in the lower Columbia River recreational fishery (upriver of the Buoy 10 fishery) is 541 chinook and 654 steelhead kept from 10,575 angler trips during August 1-14. Catch rates are expected to improve as the season progresses, the staff report said.
The staff report said that last week and this week typically have the highest chinook catch in the Buoy 10 fishery and has projected catch 29,300 through Labor Day.
Projections during September 6 to December 31 total 2,600 fish. Total catch projections for August 24 through December 31 total 31,900 chinook.
“Based on the projected harvest and ESA impacts available, there is some room for additional harvest,” the staff concluded.
The Compact added two 9-hour nights for commercial gillnetting. Gillnetters were allowed 51,600 chinook. However, harvest through August 22 has been 12,892 chinook and 71 coho. Landings for August 23-24 and August 25-26 are projected at 15,000 chinook. Staff estimates that 24,000 chinook are available to harvest during the added gillnetting periods.
The most controversial of staff recommendations is a test of whether the seine fishery can visually identify each of the two chinook stocks.
The test would be on alternate days for fishers that use a beach seine and those that use a purse seine. In the test, the seiners would identify and keep unclipped chinook. Purse seiners are allowed to keep unclipped chinook September 7, while beach seiners can keep the fish September 14.
The controversy is with gillnetters. There are just two register beach seiners and two registered purse seiners, but they are allowed 10 percent of the total non-Indian commercial catch, while the other 160 some gillnetters are allotted the remaining fish.
“The market is strong right now (for chinook salmon),” said gillnetter Les Clark. “But that 10 percent given to just four seiners is a big loss to us.”
Seining is a part of the fishery harvest reforms on the Columbia River, generally unpopular with commercial fishers, that effectively remove commercial gillnetters from the mainstem river by 2017, but allows gillnetting in the lower river in select areas.
The three-year transition will be complete by next year.
It consists of harvest allocation shifts, with recreational anglers taking a larger chunk of the mainstem fishing while commercial fishing transitions to select off-channel areas.
It also includes enhancing production of salmon in the select areas with more hatchery fish, all by the 2017 fishing season. The idea is to offer commercial fishing areas where few of the wild protected fish venture.
The plan also calls for the continued assessment of alternative commercial gear, such as beach and purse seines, that it is hoped can be used in the mainstem with fewer negative impacts – mortalities – on wild fish surging up the river.