ILWACO - Oregon and Washington fishery officials are still expressing optimism that this year's upriver spring Chinook salmon will eventually make a surge towards their home hatcheries and spawning areas in reasonably high numbers.

But the fishes' continued absence in Bonneville Dam counting windows forced the closure of the Columbia River mainstem sport fishery from the Interstate 5 bridge at Portland to the river mouth at the end of the day last Thursday. The lower river had been scheduled to remain open through April 19. The mainstem waters above Bonneville remain open for salmon and steelhead fishing.

The closure includes all fishing for steelhead and shad, as well as spring Chinook. Fishing will remain open for hatchery spring Chinook in Columbia River tributaries, including the Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis, Wind and Klickitat rivers.

The lower mainstem commercial fishery was "put on hold" in late March.

It's important to remember that Chinook and coho salmon returning to the Columbia from August onward are considered to be the fall run. An ample sport fishery is still anticipated for those fall fish.

"I think it's time to do that right now for the sport fishery," said Cindy LeFleur, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's representative at a Tuesday hearing called to evaluate the status of the upriver spring Chinook run.

The upriver spring Chinook count through Monday, April 17, totaled 213, about one-fifth the 1,046-adult count through that date a year ago. It is far below the 10-year average for that date of 44,319, raising fears that the number of adult upriver spring Chinook returning to the river might not reach the 88,440 preseason prediction.

The past two years' counts are the lowest since a 760-Chinook tally through April 10 in 1960.

That is a concern because non-tribal fish harvests in the mainstem are allocated based on that preseason prediction. Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife department officials estimate that the sport fishers caught and kept 5,600 spring Chinook through April 13, with 62 percent of the catch being upriver fish.

That would amount to 82 percent of the anglers' allocation for mainstem river between Bonneville and the mouth, based on the preseason estimate. If the actual return slips to 55,000 upriver fish, as an example, the "below Bonneville" sport fishery would have already consumed 122 percent of its "impacts."

The impacts on the upriver run are limited as a tool to reduce the impacts on Upper Columbia and Snake River stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The 2005 run did eventually begin passing Bonneville. The count rested at 358 through April 14, 2005, a day on which the first 100-fish count of the year was recorded. The cumulative count rose to 4,340 by April 21 and counts averaged 3,137 per day the following week, according to Fish Passage Center weekly reports. Officials estimate that the overall return to the river last year included 106,900 adult upriver spring Chinook.

Mainstem sport catch rates have been comparable to recent years, raising hopes that the run is relatively bountiful but that, for one reason or another, the fish have not begun to make their way upriver. Run sizes from 2002 through 2005 have ranged from 106,900 to 295,100.

"I am encouraged by the harvest rates in the sport fishery," LeFleur said. She and the ODFW's Curt Melcher said that they held out hope that the sport fishery could be reopened if the run begins to show signs of life.

Likewise they said they would like to see the commercial fishers get more opportunity. The gill-net fleet had only harvested 24 percent of its allocation, based on the preseason forecast for upriver spring Chinook, in outings in late February and early March. Overall, non-tribal fisheries will have consumed 43 percent of the allocation established by the states (up to 1.5 percent harvest of the overall upriver run) based on the preseason forecast.

Tribal officials and commercial and sport fishers all spoke in favor of the closure, with tribes and gill-netters suggesting the sport fishery be shut down at the end of the day Wednesday.

"We're trying to do some of our ceremonial permit fishing and we're very concerned about the low numbers crossing Bonneville," said Roger Dick Jr. of the Yakama Nation. He said that an annual salmon feast attended by 450 people last week at Celilo had to make do with a single fish.

The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association's executive director, Liz Hamilton, favored the closure even though it will have a negative economic impact.

"We've got to do what's right for the fish," she said. Hamilton said she felt the predicted run will eventually show itself and that harvests to-date will be well below allowed impact limits.

"There's no conservation danger at the moment and we want to make sure we don't create one," Hamilton said.

The upriver run normally peaks in late April to early May. The run forecasts are not normally updated until the last week in April, when at least half of the run has passed Bonneville in a year when the timing of the run is "normal." Through April 10, normally about 8 percent of the run will have passed the lowermost hydro project on the river. For late-timed runs, normally 2 to 3 percent will have passed.

Fishery officials, and fishing interests, speculated about the reasons for the feeble passage to-date. The presence of sea lions, and newly installed grates at the fish ladder openings, are among the suspected culprits. The grates were installed this winter to prevent sea lions from entering Bonneville's fishways.

The number of, particularly, California sea lions that swim the 140 miles to Bonneville has grown from a handful prior to 2002 to from 87 to 111 the past three years. The male sea lions swim north from their California breeding grounds during the winter and spring to feed. Their concentration at the base of Bonneville coincides with the arrival of spring Chinook. It was estimated that last year the pinnipeds at the dam consumed at least 3.4 percent of the overall upriver run.

Both fishermen and fishery officials wondered if perhaps the pinnipeds' presence may be somehow spooking the fish and causing them to delay their upstream passage.

"I have to believe it has some sort of effect," Melcher said. Likewise it was speculated that the Sea Lion Exclusion Devices installed at the ladder entrances may be daunting the fish. The metal grates at each of the 12 entrances vary from 10 feet to 15 feet in width and 30 feet to 36 feet in height. A total of 24 sections will be fabricated, each weighing more than 10,000 pounds. The gap between the grate bars are about 16 inches, enough for a fish, but not a sea lion, to swim through.

Research is planned to evaluate the effect on spawning salmon behavior and passage.

Slightly cooler than normal water temperatures and rising river flows were also discussed as possible reasons for a delayed surge upstream by the fish. Salmon are known to await temperature "cues."

The Columbia Basin Bulletin is e-mail newsletter produced by Intermountain Communications of Bend, Ore., and supported with Bonneville Power Administration fish and wildlife funds through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. Visit the Bulletin online at http://www.cbbulletin.com.

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