COLUMBIA RIVER - The other shoe dropped with a loud splash Sunday when Washington and Oregon fisheries managers responded to sky-high coho catch rates by abruptly ending the Buoy 10 salmon season.
The popular recreational fishery at the mouth of the Columbia was closed to Chinook fishing a week earlier. In theory, the Buoy 10 season is supposed to last until the end of the year, though it often peaks in September and then rapidly subsides.
Much angry muttering was overheard in mooring basins and campgrounds in Ilwaco and Chinook on Sunday, as holiday weekend vacationers began trailering their boats and packing gear for earlier-than-expected departures for home.
Meanwhile, Chinook counts at Bonneville Dam have far surpassed the 10-year average, steelhead counts are nearing that mark and scientists are finding enough juvenile salmon and jacks in the ocean and the river to promise good fishing in the years ahead. (See related story on page A8.)
Higher-than-expected returns may have affected the catch rates at Buoy 10, but managers say they can't up the catch limits mid-season.
Following the Chinook closure, catch rates for coho salmon quadrupled, raising concerns about the impact sport fishers are having on wild fish protected the under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Even though anglers fishing the Lower Columbia River may retain only hatchery-reared coho, identifiable by a clipped adipose fin, high catch rates are still an issue, said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We know that some wild fish die after they are released, so we need to be cautious," LeFleur said. "Mortality rates for wild coho are strictly limited under the ESA."
Before the season started, fishery managers anticipated that anglers would catch approximately 4,000 hatchery coho during this year's Buoy 10 fishery. But as many as nearly 11,000 may have been caught before the season ended at the end of the day Saturday.
As for what's ahead, biologists say that ocean conditions will always exercise a powerful influence over the salmon's life cycle. According to John Ferguson, a senior biologist with NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, surveys this year show "very productive" ocean conditions north of Newport, Ore., as well as indicators of very high numbers of juvenile salmon in the ocean - some of the highest numbers ever seen.
There is a strong correlation between high juvenile numbers and good salmon returns in future years, according to Ferguson. The fish NOAA sampled offshore this year include coho that will return next year and spring Chinook that will return in 2010.
Additionally, counts at Bonneville Dam of jacks - adult Chinook salmon that return to spawn a year earlier than most of their cohort - are high this year, more than 36,600. That is about 50 percent above the 10-year average. Jacks are an indicator of the average strength of the next year's adult returns, although they may not accurately predict the run size for any specific year.