Moving toward resolution on Columbia River chinook

This much is clear: Both sport and commercial fishermen are unhappy with a proposed spring chinook catch-sharing recommendation for the lower Columbia River.

On Monday, the Columbia River Fish Working Group agreed on an approximately five-year scenario for dividing the harvest between the groups.

"We knew we weren't going to please," said Jerry Gutzwiler of Wenatchee, chairman of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and a working group member. "We've got a finite resource and a big appetite for it."

The working group included three commission members from each state.

The six have been meeting monthly since September to develop a recommendation to their full commissions.

Arguably, their proposal is a small victory for sport-fishing interests, one that chips away at the commercial share under most circumstances.

The working group agreed on these four principles, in this order:

-- The highest priority is a 45-day sport fishery in March and April.

-- Next priority is protecting the off-channel commercial fishery in places like Youngs Bay and Blind Slough in Oregon, and Deep River in Washington. Only a small number of endangered wild spring chinook stray into and are caught in these spots.

-- Allowing at least a little gillnetting in March or April in the lower Columbia is desirable if the run is large enough.

-- The split among sport fishing is 75 percent downstream of Bonneville Dam and 25 percent upstream.

The four principles also are paired with an allocation matrix which factors in the strength of the upper Columbia and Willamette spring chinook runs when determining percentages. The sport share can range from 55 percent to 75 percent, depending on the forecasts for the two watersheds.

The base allocation is 65 percent sport/35 percent commercial. Sport allocation in 2007 was targeted to be 57 percent, and 61 percent in 2008.

Complicating the agreement is a 35 percent buffer early in the season. State, federal and tribal biologists predict the spring chinook run each December, but the forecast is often off as much as 20 percent to 60 percent, with 35 percent the average, said Steve Williams of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The sport and commercial combined fisheries would be permitted harvest to no more than 65 percent of the projected allowable catch, leaving the buffer until the spring chinook run can be updated by Bonneville Dam counts in late April or early May.

The full Washington and Oregon commissions will meet Dec. 11 in Portland to receive the working group's recommendations and accept public comment.

The Washington commission is scheduled to adopt a spring chinook allocation policy on Dec. 13 when the panel meets in Olympia.