Columbia River chinook run exceptional, but coho numbers down

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

It's a situation Washington and Oregon fishery officials never thought they'd see: More than twice as many fall chinook salmon returning to the Columbia River than coho.

A monster fall chinook salmon run but only mediocre coho numbers are expected back in 2002.

First the good news.

A whopping 677,900 fall chinook salmon are predicted to enter the Columbia between August and November. It would be the third best return since 1948.

And the bad news.

A total of 305,100 coho destined for the Columbia River are projected to be in the ocean this summer, just 23 percent of the giant run of 1.3 million in 2001.

Normally, coho numbers are double or triple that of chinook. For years, ocean salmon seasons have been designed to target on coho and spare chinook.

''It's an extraordinary set of circumstances where chinook are way up and coho are way down,'' Phil Anderson, a high-ranking Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official, said Wednesday. ''I can't remember this kind of abundance proportions. We're scratching our heads wondering where do we start from here.''

Fishermen and state officials agreed they'd like to see a significant harvest of the plentiful chinook in the ocean off Washington and Oregon and in the Columbia River.

But designing seasons to catch chinook without bumping into restraints to protect wild coho salmon will be tough, Anderson said.

A seven-week series of meetings and negotiations leading to the setting of ocean salmon salmon seasons started Wednesday. The Pacific Fishery Management Council will make the final decision April 8 through 12 in Portland.

Fall chinook in the Columbia are broken down into several stocks.

The ''bright'' chinook stocks fuel sport fisheries at the Cowlitz River mouth, Kalama, Government Island and in the Columbia Gorge. That forecast is for 337,200. Those fish also provide the bulk of the tribal catch between Bonneville and McNary dams.

Among those 337,200 bright chinook, 281,000 are anticipated to be ''upriver brights, predominantly wild-spawning salmon from the Hanford Reach near Tri-Cities. The balance is split between fish destined for Bonneville Hatchery in Oregon and a variety of hatcheries in the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day pools.

In addition, 282,000 ''tule (pronounced too-lee) stocks, which return to lower Columbia River hatcheries plus the big Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery in eastern Skamania County, are expected back.

That compares to just 47,100 in 2000.

Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery alone is contributing a projected 144,400 fall chinook to this years run.

Tule chinook, although less desirable once they get in the Columbia, are good biters off the Washington coast and at Buoy 10, just inside the mouth of the Columbia.

State biologists also expect 18,700 wild-spawning chinook in lower Columbia tributaries, primarily the North Fork of the Lewis River downstream of Merwin Dam. That would be the best return in 11 years. Wild spawners were down in the late 1990s, the results of flooding in 1995 and 1996.

The picture is much, much less rosy for Columbia River coho.

A total of 305,100 coho destined for the Columbia River are projected to be in the ocean this summer.

In 2001, the early stock coho numbered 873,000. The forecast for this year is 161,600. The late stock in 2001 was 429,700 compared to a prediction for 143,500 this year.

Early coho enter the Columbia from mid-August through September, while late coho enter from mid-September into November.

Steve Watrous of Vancouver, a salmon advisory council member for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, said fishermen at Buoy 10 this summer will want to target on chinook near the Astoria Bridge, rather than coho closer to the ocean.

''It takes about a million coho for a good fishery at Buoy 10, Watrous said. ''The lates don't come in the river until late September so the fishery is really driven by those early stock fish.

Joe Hymer, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, said there are a several theories why the coho are down while the chinook are high.

This year's coho migrated to the ocean in spring of 2001, during some of the lowest Columbia River flows on record, he said. There also are indications ocean survival conditions are weakening. Another school of thought is that the forage fish anchovy and sardines were so plentiful in the Pacific last summer that they overwhelmed the coho smolts coming down the Columbia River.

''It's all speculation,'' Hymer said.

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