LEWISTON, Idaho -- Negotiations between Northwest states and Indian tribes could lead to an increased number of spring chinook available to anglers upstream of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and stretching into Idaho via the Snake River.
Washington and Oregon are considering adoption of a process that purposefully underestimates the strength of spring chinook runs to help ensure the fish are not overharvested before run strength can be measured at Bonneville Dam.
Oregon and Washington set salmon fisheries in the lower Columbia River based on preseason run forecasts. Salmon managers don't know if those forecasts are accurate until salmon start passing Bonneville Dam where they can be counted.
Over the past two years, fewer spring chinook have returned to the Columbia River and its tributaries than was forecasted by salmon managers. That led to a disproportionate rate of harvest, largely by sport anglers, below the dam.
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Columbia River Indian tribes and the state of Idaho protested through the U.S. v. Oregon process that helps states and tribes divide salmon runs. In response, Oregon and Washington are considering managing their 2010 lower Columbia River fisheries at about 30 percent below what the run forecast would indicate is acceptable. If the run lives up to forecasts, lower river fishing would be expanded.
"We know we have shorted (upriver) fisheries over the last several years. We view it as a problem and obviously the stakeholders view it as a problem. Any time we see things going out of balance we are interested in fixing it," said Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Olympia.
Ed Schriever, chief of the fisheries bureau for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise, said the department's governing commission directed the fisheries staff to meet with Washington and Oregon to discuss the issue.
The directors of the three states' fish and game agencies met earlier this year at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's cabin on Billy Creek south of Asotin.
Idaho will now participate more intensely in predicting future spring chinook runs and also consult with Oregon and Washington on their salmon fishing season setting process.
"We have had some very productive discussions with Idaho and we are real happy about where those are going to go over the longer term, both in terms of greater involvement of Idaho Fish and Game staff in our preseason forecast and how we build the forecast, and input on how we schedule the whole gauntlet of fishing," Tweit said.
Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins and hatcheries on the Clearwater River contribute a significant number of chinook to fisheries throughout the basin. Schriever said anglers who fish below Bonneville Dam catch salmon returning to hatcheries throughout the basin. In recent years, that harvest has taken a large share of fish bound for Idaho.
But the new system could come at a cost to anglers on the Columbia River. Because harvest rates will be set more conservatively, when runs come in as strong or stronger than forecasted, downriver anglers would miss some early fishing opportunity.
Early spring, before the Columbia rises and turns muddy with snow melt, offers some of the best fishing conditions.