Chinook fisherman

Chinook salmon of any size — and far less a big one like pictured — are few and far between in Washington waters this year.

As of June 1, it is no longer mandatory to use barbless hooks to fish for salmon, steelhead and trout in the Columbia River.

In March, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission directed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to make the use of barbless hooks voluntary for salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife followed suit, lifting the requirement to use barbless hooks, also on June 1, so that Oregon regulations remain concurrent with Washington in the jointly managed waters of the Columbia River. Oregon’s rule is an emergency rule and will still require the approval of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission this month.

Anglers have been required to use barbless hooks when fishing for salmon, steelhead and trout in the Columbia River since 2013 when Columbia River harvest reforms were initiated by the two states. The barbed hook ban was initiated to promote the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead.

As a conservation tool, barbless hooks are easier to remove than barbed hooks, reducing the likelihood of killing or injuring fish, said WDFW officials at the time.

However, when WDFW completed a performance review of its first five-years of harvest reform last year, the Washington Commission had asked if science supported banning barbed hooks.

“The body of work (studies on conservation savings) is inconclusive that there are measurable savings going from barbed to barbless hooks,” said WDFW’s Ryan Lothrop last week. “The biggest effect is where the fish is hooked.”

Lothrop is WDFW Columbia River fishery manager. He said that before and after harvest reform, mortality rates for caught and released salmon and steelhead had not changed.

However, that does not apply to the smaller trout where barbed hooks could be detrimental in a catch and release fishery, he added.

The commission has also been listening to the public and had been hearing from some anglers and guides that they preferred barbed hooks, Lothrop said.

At its March 2 meeting in Spokane, the Washington Commission voted to allow barbed hooks beginning June 1.

Not everyone agrees. David Moskowitz, executive director of The Conservation Angler, an advocacy group for wild fish, plans to oppose Oregon’s emergency rule at the Commission’s meeting this month. In an email to the Oregon Commission, he said that “there are multiple reasons to require barbless hooks in fisheries in Oregon including human safety and applying principles of ‘fair chase’ to angling,” and added that “We will ask that the Commission not consent to the emergency rule on Thursday.”

Chinook returns dismal

Currently Chinook fishing is not allowed in joint state waters, largely due to an extremely poor return of spring Chinook, but also due to what Lothrop said are “major hatchery shortages” of broodstock. The last spring Chinook angling this year was upstream of Bonneville Dam May 11 and 12.

The U.S. v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee downgraded the already poor run size from the preseason forecast of 99,300 fish to 75,000 May 20. That is a drop from last year’s actual return of 115,081 and half the 10-year average of 198,200 fish.

Just 54,657 spring Chinook had passed the dam as of June 3, 37 percent of the 10-year average on that date of 148,623. Jack Chinook passage is 6,728, 27 percent of the 10-year average on that date of 24,719. Passage of jack salmon in one year are often considered a harbinger of the adult run the following year. Add in the 3,418 that have passed the dam as summer Chinook by June 4 and the total is 58,075 spring Chinook. The Fish Passage Center considers Chinook passing June 1 and after to be summer Chinook, whereas the two-state Columbia River Compact and TAC count as spring Chinook fish passing the dam through June 15.

Steelhead numbers over Bonneville are 2,229 total, 1,081 of those wild, as of June 3. The 10-year average is 5,483 total, with 1,715 of those wild fish. Lothrop said these are Skamania fish. Beginning July 1, steelhead that pass the dam will be mostly upriver and Snake River fish.

Chinook that pass Bonneville Dam after June 15 are summer Chinook. That forecast is dismal: 35,900 summer Chinook are expected, down from last year’s actual count of 42,120 (the 2018 preseason forecast was 67,300).

Upper Columbia summer Chinook have been in a steady decline since 2015’s run of over 120,000 fish.

Lothrop said that it is unlikely that angling for spring Chinook will reopen this year and also that the poor run of summer Chinook means that angling will likely continue to be closed through that season, as well.

That leaves just summer steelhead angling in the mainstem Columbia River and that will be limited. Right now, two hatchery steelhead are allowed, but beginning July 1 that bag limit will drop to one fish, with steelhead fishing closed at night. In addition, further protections will be put in place later in the summer, such as rolling closures, similar to those implemented two years ago, Lothrop said.

Hook-rule end game

The temporary barbed hook rule will remain in effect until further notice or until it expires in late November, Oregon says. For it to become a permanent rule in Oregon, the Fish and Wildlife Commission will need to approve a rule change, which commissioners are expected to consider at a future meeting.

Due to Endangered Species Act permitting with NOAA, WDFW says it is unable to fully lift restrictions on barbed hooks in some areas at this time, including tributaries upstream of McNary Dam, including the Snake River.

Still, barbless hook requirements on salmon and steelhead fishing are being lifted across a broad swath of Washington waters, including the mainstem Columbia River from Buoy 10 to Chief Joseph Dam, and Columbia River tributaries from Buoy 10 to McNary Dam.

Anglers fishing for sturgeon are still required to use barbless hooks.

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