Chinook forecast down 50 percent; steelhead season delayed

Summer steelhead fishing in the Columbia River downstream of Interstate 5 will not open today, placed on hold for possibly as long as a month to prevent incidental catches from the struggling spring chinook salmon run.

State and tribal biologists downgraded their forecast for this year's Columbia River spring chinook run by about 50 percent, from the original 298,900 to between 120,000 to 150,000.

Washington and Oregon officials on Wednesday delayed the steelhead opener, but will allow shad fishing to open today as scheduled.

No one knows why the spring chinook return is so far below forecast.

"It's frustrating, it's confusing, it's complicated,'' said Steve Williams of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "You ask why it's happening and there are no clean and compact answers.''

Sportsmen would handle about 200 spring chinook between May 16 and 31 plus another 100 between June 1 and the end of the run on June 15. An estimated 27 of those would die in being caught and and released.

But with the spring salmon run so far under the forecast, the March-April catch alone by sportsmen and commercial fishermen might end up slightly over federal Endangered Species Act guidelines.

Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said if this year's spring run is as late as the one in 2006 -- the latest on recent record -- it might reach 165,000.

While updates to the forecast in future weeks might vary some, a large surge in passage at Bonneville Dam is unlikely this far into the run, said Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and chairman of Columbia River Technical Advisory Committee.

The period of high volatility in the count ends after about the first week in May, Ellis said.

The adult portion of the upper Columbia River spring chinook run are 4- and 5-year-old fish.

Three-year-old spring chinook (called jacks) are used to forecast the next year's return of 4-year-old adults, and 4-year-olds are used to predict next year's 5-year-olds.

The biggest jack return in recent years was in 2000, when 24,363 jacks were counted at Bonneville Dam. That big jack return accurately predicted a big run in 2001, when 416,500 adults returned.

The 2008 jack count of 22,352 was second best, and forecasted a much better run than this year's disappointing return.

Surprisingly, this year's jack count at Bonneville Dam already is a new record. More than 28,000 jacks had been tallied through Tuesday with a month of counting remaining.

Chris Kern of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said it's hard to know what the big jack count means.

"That's something we'll be trying to figure out over the next nine months,'' he said.

The 2008-17 Columbia River salmon management agreement between the four treaty tribes and non-Indians contains a sliding scale which determines what percentage of the run each group is allowed to harvest.

Sportsmen have caught 16,100 upper Columbia spring chinook, while the non-Indian gillnet fleet landed 4,580.

If the run is less than 145,000, the non-Indian catch will have exceeded federal Endangered Species Act guidelines.

Washington and Oregon fishery managers have to set sport and commercial fisheries in the lower Columbia with only the pre-season forecast available. They plugged in a new 55 percent buffer in 2009, but still may have overharvested slightly.

The tribes, who fish upstream of Bonneville Dam, have the benefit of dam counts to get a better assessment of the strength of the run before adopting their fisheries.

Due to the halving of the forecast, the Columbia River treaty tribes will not have commercial gillnet fisheries in the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day pools, Ellis said.

Ellis said the tribes have caught about 9,700 spring chinook in ceremonial and subsistence seasons. At a run of 135,000, the tribes harvest allocation is 11,205.

The 1,500 or so salmon left is not enough for a gillnet season, he said.