BONNEVILLE - With more than 456,000 fall Chinook tallied at Bonneville Dam since Aug. 1, the late summer run is on track to finish up as the third largest since 1948. About 550,000 fish are expected by the end of the season.
According to fish managers, more than half the run is made up of upriver brights, born and bred in the Hanford Reach. But prices are so poor, biologists say some commercial fishermen have been dumping the less marketable tules overboard instead of bothering to sell them.
The worldwide salmon glut is still with us, due mainly to a steady supply of farmed salmon across the globe. The huge drop in salmon prices has hurt harvesters of wild fish from Alaska to California, and the situation is not expected to change anytime soon.
Tribal fishermen had caught about 97,000 Chinook by Sept. 14, and were expected to harvest another 15,000 fish or so. Faced with declining prices like other West Coast commercial harvesters, tribal harvesters salvaged some economic worth from their catch by selling about 23 percent of it directly to the public, according to Stuart Ellis, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission harvest manager.
Tribal fishers could sell Chinook for about $2 per pound directly to the public, about four times the price wholesale buyers were offering on the fishing grounds. Ellis said commercial buyers were no longer interested in steelhead this season. They had been paying as little 5 cents per pound for them.
Ellis said wholesale prices for brights had declined from 50 cents/lb. to 35 cents/lb., but the less marketable tules from Bonneville Pool hatcheries were selling for only 5 cents a pound to buyers who were reportedly smoking them. The tules, with softer, whiter flesh than upriver brights, are nearly ready to spawn by the time they reach the upriver Indian fishery.
The fall tule run was expected to be the largest since 1976. By last week, it had already surpassed preseason estimates of 136,000 fish with another 28,000 tules expected. However, the low prices had evidently put some fishermen in the awkward position of shaking fish out of their nets and just dumping them in the river instead of selling them.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Joe Hymer said there was evidence of dumping in both the non-Indian and tribal commercial fisheries. Hymer said 500 dead tule Chinook reportedly had been seen floating behind Bonneville Dam, evidently discarded by unhappy harvesters in the tribal fishery. "You've got to feel for the guy who hauls a 30-pound tule to the fish buyer and gets $1.50 for it," Hymer said. "Guys are hauling one or two full totes of fish into the buying stations and leaving with only 80 to 90 dollars in their pocket." Hymer said he had also heard that difficulties with wholesale buyers had left some tribal fishers with fish in their nets and no place to sell them.
The tules are a hatchery stock raised at USFWS' Spring Creek Hatchery, upriver from Bonneville Dam. Nearly every year, BPA spills millions of dollars' worth of water in March to help the juvenile fall Chinook from the Spring Creek facility make it over the dam. However, the power agency, citing its own economic woes, recently informed fish managers that it may not spill for the hatchery release in the future.
But Hymer said sports fishermen were ecstatic over the good fishing. Over 10,000 Chinook had been landed by the sporties in the first nine days of the September season on the lower Columbia. "And they're still at it," he said. "We've never seen fishing like this before." The Buoy 10 sport fishery took about 19,000 fall Chinook, with the lower Columbia sporties projected to take another 25,000. Non-Indian commercial fishermen were expected to take about 30,000 fall Chinook as well, with total non-Indian harvest totaling about 87,000 Chinook.
Projected impacts from both tribal and non-Indian catches were estimated at 202,000 fish, with upriver brights making up about 26 percent.
Hymer also said the coho salmon run may come in a bit better than expected. This year's coho return was estimated at only 172,000 fish, nearly a million fish shy of last year's huge return. But biologists expect next year's coho run to be much better if their first catch of jacks is any indication. Hymer said the 5,000 or so coho jacks caught in the first pass of the fish trap on the Lewis River was more than the total that showed up there all last fall. He said the jacks that signal the following year's run strength looked very healthy.
"They're like little footballs," Hymer said. Harvest managers bumped up their forecast for early run coho from 113,000 fish to 226,000 adults entering the Columbia.
Lower Columbia tribes have been touting their fish recovery efforts in recent days, noting the numbers of fall Chinook counted at Lower Granite Dam this year. In a Sept. 10 press release, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said fish supplementation efforts were paying off. "Last year, we set a record run with a dam count of 8,900 fall Chinook, and this year will be more," CRITFC harvest manager Stuart Ellis noted. "In 2000, we had 3,500 fish, and that was a record run."
By Sept. 29, over 10,200 fall Chinook had been counted at Lower Granite, where the 10-year average is less than 1,000 fish annually. In recent years, millions of juvenile fall Chinook have been trucked from the Lyons Ferry Hatchery on the lower Snake to various sites above the dam to acclimation ponds before release. In 2000, the brood year that produced most of this year's returning fall Chinook, over two million juveniles were released above the dam. Whether the returning hatchery fish will add much to wild runs that are listed under the ESA remains to be seen, though redd counts have improved each year, said Dave Johnson, the Nez Perce Tribe's fisheries program manager.
Don Sampson, CRITFC executive director, said the stock will likely achieve recovery before the NMFS plan to recover the Snake River fall Chinook is completed. The federal fish agency has had a difficult time keeping track of wild fall Chinook passing Lower Granite because they are mixed with large numbers of hatchery fish whose adipose fins were never clipped to differentiate them from the wild fish. NMFS has still not decided how many wild fish passed the dam last year, nor has any projection been made for this year's wild run. In 2000, about 857 wild fall Chinook made it home.
Redd counts could improve markedly if the returning hatchery fish spawn successfully. Biologists would not be able detect any visible differences between future generations of the supplemented fish and older strains of wild Chinook.
CRITFC has been pushing the fish supplementation issue as a region-wide review of artificial production is nearly finished. The group released an August report that found the Priest Rapids Hatchery was a strong contributor to wild runs in the Hanford Reach. The report said the hatchery-reared fish contributed up to 33 percent of the adult returns to the reach in any one year, averaging nearly 9 percent over the 20 years surveyed.
But almost three years ago, Idaho consultant Don Chapman warned Northwest Power Planning Council members about the effects of too many hatchery spawners in the Hanford Reach. Chapman said about 240 spawners, or 25 percent of the total number, were of hatchery origin. He said that was too much and could cause "genetic drift" of the natural population. Chapman said there were very few wild fall Chinook used in the Priest Rapids hatchery brood stock, a situation that should be corrected.
"Don't screw it up," he admonished, pointing out that the hatchery fish were there for one reason-to increase the salmon catch in the fisheries. This year, escapement past McNary Dam is more than 123,000 fall brights, surpassing last year's 110,000-fish escapement, the largest number since 1988, when about 115,000 fall Chinook passed the fourth dam on the Columbia. With about 14,000 fall Chinook headed up the Snake and about 22,500 passing Priest Rapids Dam beyond the Hanford Reach, that leaves more than 86,000 fish, a mix of wild and hatchery fish to remain in the productive reach. A sports fishery opened up in that area Aug. 16.