Dismal Returns Close Columbia River to Salmon Fishing

CLACKAMAS, Ore. (CN) – Fishing for Chinook salmon in the Columbia River will be closed again this year as fish are expected to return from the ocean in their lowest numbers since the dismal returns of 2000.

Fisheries managers with Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife said Tuesday that they will reduce recreational fishing seasons and bag limits for all but Coho salmon, which are the only type of salmon or steelhead expected to return from the ocean at an increased rate this year.

Spring and fall Chinook, sockeye salmon and summer steelhead runs are also projected to have below-average returns to the Pacific Northwest’s largest river.

The poor returns are mostly due to ocean conditions that are unfavorable to zooplankton – the building block of ocean life. But John North, fisheries manager for Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Columbia River Program, said the downswing is also a part of a larger pattern of surges and declines in fish populations.

The three years between 2013 and 2015 saw large runs ranging from 1.16 million to 1.3 million fall Chinook, compared with 350,000 expected to return this year. Returns during those years were the highest since the 1938 construction of Bonneville Dam. 

“We’ve come down a lot but it wasn’t very long ago that we set three consecutive records in an 80-year period,” North said in a phone interview. “Just because it’s going down doesn’t mean it’s headed to oblivion.”

Fishing of fall Chinook is constrained by recovery efforts for upriver bright Chinook – a run of fall Chinook that spawn in the upper Snake River and are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Each year, the National Marine Fisheries Service sets a “take limit” establishing the number of fish that can be killed each year without threatening recovery.

This year’s take of fall upriver bright Chinook will be limited to 8.25 percent of the 159,250 fish expected to return from the ocean. The agencies will adjust the rate based on surveys of actual returns later in the year.

Recreational fishing limits announced Tuesday are in addition to those set for commercial fishing and separate from the limits set by tribal nations on their members’ fishing. Federally recognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest have treaty rights guaranteeing them half of the allowable take. The same salmon runs are also fished while they are in the ocean, according to limits set each year by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Still, North says salmon fishing is designed to be sustainable.

“Recovery is already built in to these take limits,” North said. “So rather than just stopping recreational fishing outright, which has significant economic and cultural effects up and down the West Coast as well as along the Columbia River, we can continue to offer some opportunity. This way, there will be lots and lots of angler trips and money generated by fishing and we’re still staying in the limits that will provide for recovery.”

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