COLUMBIA RIVER — Just half the average number of upriver spring Chinook salmon are forecast to enter the Columbia River this year, a decline in abundance that will limit spring recreational angling.
The two-state Columbia River Compact met Feb. 20 to determine how much recreational fishing will be allowed given the paltry preseason forecast return of just 99,300 spring Chinook, 14 percent less than last year’s actual return of 115,081 fish and 50 percent under the 10-year average of 198,200 (2009 – 2018).
Limiting fishing areas in the Lower Columbia River is a low expected return of fish to the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers in Southwest Washington.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the spring Chinook run to the Cowlitz River is projected to be just 11 percent of the 10-year average.
The number will fall short of meeting hatchery production goals, WDFW says. The Cowlitz goal is 1,337 fish and the Lewis goal is 1,380 fish.
Ryan Lothrop, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the forecast for upriver fish is the lowest since 2007, but still higher than 1995 when just 12,800 fish returned. He added that this year’s low return is largely the result of poor ocean conditions, which have complicated fisheries management in recent years.
“Experience has shown that warm-water ocean conditions present a challenge to salmon survival,” Lothrop said. “As in the 1990s, we have observed that cyclical warming effect during the past few years with similar results. During these times, we have to be especially cautious in how we manage the fishery.”
Generally, spring Chinook fishing opens March 1 in the Lower Columbia from Buoy 10 near Astoria to Bonneville Dam. However, to meet the Cowlitz and Lewis escapement goals, the Columbia will be closed downstream of the confluence of the Lewis and Columbia rivers beginning March 1. The mouth of the Lewis is about 68 river miles from the well-known, popular Buoy 10 recreational fishery.
At the Compact meeting in Portland, WDFW’s Bill Tweit, special assistant, said the state would likely close the two Columbia tributaries to fishing for spring Chinook, which it did that afternoon, closing both rivers to spring Chinook fishing, effective March 1. However, the agency left the rivers open to hatchery steelhead angling.
In public testimony, fishing guide Bill Monroe Jr. suggested that Washington also consider closing the Kalama River to protect both spring Chinook and steelhead.
He said that as some popular rivers are closed, others, such as the Kalama (upstream of Bonneville Dam), could be fished fairly heavily. WDFW, instead, reduced the daily limit of Chinook to one fish, but left open fishing for steelhead.
Along with new area restrictions in the Lower Columbia, fishery managers also reduced initial harvest limits for upriver spring Chinook returning to the upper Columbia and Snake rivers. If those fish return as projected, anglers in the Columbia and Snake rivers will be limited to 4,548 fish, compared to 9,052 last year, prior to a run size updated in May.
Geoff Whisler, this year’s lead of the US v Oregon Technical Advisory Committee, which develops the preseason forecasts and will update the forecast sometime in May, said that the 10-year average for 50 percent of the run to pass Bonneville Dam is May 8. However, for the past two years the date has slipped. In 2017, about one-half had passed by May 16, and it was May 17 in 2018. TAC will usually wait to provide a run update until it determines about half of the run has passed the dam.
“Anglers will still find some good fishing opportunities in the Columbia River Basin this spring, but conservation has to be our first concern,” Lothrop said. “We have a responsibility to protect salmon runs listed under the federal Endangered Species Act and get enough fish back to the spawning grounds and hatcheries to support future runs.”
In the Columbia below Bonneville Dam, the modified recreational spring Chinook season begins Friday, March 1 and is approved through Wednesday, April 10.
What’s different this year is the area that will be open to angling: from Warrior Rock (St. Helens) upstream to Beacon Rock for both boat and bank fishing, plus bank angling only from Beacon Rock upstream to the Bonneville Dam deadline.
The daily bag limit for areas above and below the dam is two adult chinook or steelhead per day, of which only one may be a chinook, and only adipose fin-clipped (hatchery) fish may be kept. Shad may also be kept.
For the area from the Warrior Rock line downstream to Buoy 10, angling for and retention of Chinook salmon, steelhead and shad will close effective March 1 in order to help protect the Cowlitz and Lewis river stocks of spring Chinook.
The Warrior Rock line runs from the Warrior Rock lighthouse on the Oregon shore to red USCG buoy #4, then to the piling dolphin on the lower end of Bachelor Island.
For more information for upcoming fishing seasons, refer to Columbia River regulation updates at myodfw.com/recreation-report/fishing-report/columbia-zone and e-regulations for permanent regulations in Oregon.
In Washington, refer to https://fortress.wa.gov/dfw/erules/efishrules/