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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Friday, May 12, 2017

salmonFishery managers have postponed the annual fishery for hatchery steelhead and jack chinook salmon from Tongue Point upriver to the Interstate 5 Bridge set to begin May 16.

Lower than expected passage of spring chinook salmon over Bonneville Dam coupled with the spring chinook catch to date in the recreational fishery downstream of Bonneville Dam are the primary causes of the delay.

As of Wednesday only about 26,000 of the approximately 160,000 forecasted spring Chinook salmon had been counted at Bonneville Dam.

Just 1,121 spring chinook jacks have passed over Bonneville Dam. Last year on May 10, more than four times that many had passed the dam and the 10-year average is 9,125.

Although steelhead anglers would have been required to release any adult salmon they caught in the postponed fishery, a certain percentage would die after release. “Unfortunately we just don’t have any lower river sport allocation left to operate this fishery prior to a run update,” said Tucker Jones, ODFW’s Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Program manager.

“We’re not sure if this run is just very late or also below forecast,” Jones said “Water conditions have been way outside of normal this year, and that could be the primary cause for the low counts to date,” he added.
“The abnormal water conditions this year have injected a level of uncertainty into assessing this run that doesn’t typically exist,” Jones said. “Given the unclear situation we have this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes another week or two before we really know the full story on this year’s return.”

However, angling for shad will open as usual May 16.

Over a week ago on April 30, just 3,337 spring chinook had been counted passing upstream over Bonneville Dam. That was the lowest cumulative count of fish at the dam on record for that date.

By May 8, the 2017 chinook run had rallied somewhat to 23,963 fish and pulled ahead from worst run on record (for that date) to fourth lowest count at the dam for the day. The years 1995, 1949 and 1952 all had lower counts on May 8 than 2017.

However, the mini-surge of fish since May 4 was not enough for the U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee to update its spring chinook run size, which it typically does halfway through the run. On average, half the run passes Bonneville by May 7.

An updated run size by TAC was also needed this week for the two-state Columbia River Compact to reconsider more sportfishing in the lower Columbia River and in the river upstream of Bonneville Dam to the Oregon and Washington border. As a result and without the update, the Compact did not meet this week.

Angling downstream of the dam ended April 23 and angling upstream of the dam ended May 5. About 6,500 fish were caught by anglers below the dam and very few upstream.

Earlier this year, TAC estimated in its early season forecast that 160,400 upriver spring chinook and Snake River spring/summer chinook salmon would pass the dam by June 15 (after that date, chinook that pass the dam are considered summer or fall chinook). The total 2017 spring chinook forecast – including upriver and lower river chinook – is down 17 percent to 227,890 fish from the 2016 actual run of 274,652 fish.

TAC met May 8 to review the upriver spring Chinook run and released this statement Monday:

“Considering this year's very unusual river conditions in March and April (extremely high flows, high turbidity, cool temperatures) along with a recent rapid increase in flows just as passage was starting to increase, TAC agreed that sufficient data are not yet available to provide an accurate run size update,” the statement said. “TAC will continue to monitor dam counts and meet to review the run again next Monday May 15.”

When TAC had previously met, Monday, May 1, they had come to the same conclusion.

The spring chinook run of 1995 is now the worst on record for May 8, with 7,848 fish over the dam on that date (the 2017 run is 305 percent of this number) and the run did not go on to rally, completing the year (June 15) with only 12,783 fish, according to information provided by Stuart Ellis, the TAC lead for 2017 and harvest management biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The 1949 run was 9,929 fish on May 8 (2017 is 241 percent of this total) and the final run size was 65,104 fish. The 1952 run was 17,195 fish on May 8 (2017 is 139 percent of this total) and the final run size was 142,226.

The fourth lowest on record is 2017.

Fifth on the list is 1950 with 26,400 fish on May 8 and a final tally of 67,729. Sixth is 1956 with 28,654 and a final run size of 73,675.

High, cold and turbid water may be causing the adult salmon to hold longer in the lower river, but one of the problems may go back to the year the juvenile chinook left the river – 2015 – when river conditions were low and the water was much warmer than normal.

“The bulk of the return this year would be 4 year old (2-ocean fish) that migrated out in very poor conditions in 2015 and went into an ocean that people generally believe was very poor for salmon,” Ellis said last week. “Our pre-season forecast was down this year because we didn't think we had great survival of these fish. The question will be is whether things were worse than we anticipated.”

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