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Coho Returns Boosted From 68,600 To 200,000, Many Fish Larger Than Usual

October 17, 2008
, Columbia Basin Bulletin
Lower Columbia River commercial fishermen got the go-ahead for more fishing this week, though not as much as they'd like given a surprisingly strong return of large silvery coho salmon.

The "early" coho run has for the most part come and gone. A preseason forecast anticipated it would number 96,000 adult fish entering the mouth of the Columbia. But an Oct. 6 run-size update, based on counts and Bonneville Dam's fish ladders, hatchery returns and other information, pegs that run at 250,000.

About one-third the Columbia basin's coho hatchery production takes place above Bonneville in the Spokane, Yakima, Wenatchee, Entiat, Methow and Snake rivers.

The "late" coho run has now hit its stride. The Technical Advisory Committee's federal, state and tribal fishery experts on Monday boosted the late coho forecast from 68,800 to 200,000.

The overall coho count so far at Bonneville's fish ladders through Wednesday was 124,295 with more than 2,000 still passing each day. That count already ranks as the third highest on record back to 1938, about half of the 2001 final tally and slightly below 2003's total of 125,743, according to count data posed by the Fish Passage Center. Bonneville is about 146 miles from the river mouth.

Many of the coho being caught this year are unusually large. Typically coho are in the 13-pound range with a "big" coho weighing in at 17 or 18 pounds, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's John North.

"Over 20 pounds is not uncommon this year," North said. He said he'd heard reports of coho that weighed up to 25 pounds.

TAC on Monday also updated the upriver bright fall chinook forecast to 224,200; the preseason forecast was 164,400. The Bonneville Pool Hatchery fall chinook forecast is now 95,900 as compared to the preseason estimate of 86,200.

Last week TAC updated the steelhead forecast. Group B steelhead headed mostly for Idaho streams are expected to number 99,700 (preseason forecast: 49,000) fish passing Bonneville. The wild portion of the B run is expected to total 13,400 steelhead (8,500 preseason). The A steelhead forecast is for 247,200 at Bonneville, including 63,400 wild fish. The overall A forecast is down slightly from the preseason (266,300) even though the wild portion is up (41,200 preseason).

Mainstem fisheries are constrained by Endangered Species Act impact limits on the harvest of chinook and coho salmon and on steelhead.

Lower Columbia coho were listed as threatened on June 28, 2005. The coho evolutionarily significant unit includes all naturally spawned populations of coho in the Columbia River and its tributaries in Washington and Oregon, from the mouth of the Columbia up to and including the Big White Salmon and Hood rivers, which are nearly 30 miles upstream of Bonneville. It also includes natural spawners in the Willamette River to Willamette Falls as well as fish from 25 lower Columbia artificial production programs. Sport and commercial fishers can catch and keep fin-clipped hatchery salmon but not all hatchery production is so marked. Unmarked fish caught in gill-nets count again ESA impact limits.

The NOAA Fisheries Service, charged with protecting listing salmon, this year dropped the Lower Columbia coho impact from 20 percent to 8 percent.

Most of the 13 commercial fishing periods so far this year in the Columbia mainstem have been confined to zones 4 and 5, the area from just above Portland up to Bonneville. The intent has been to avoid catching lower river chinook (Lower River Wild and Lower River Hatchery) and the Lower Columbia coho. Impact limits are also in place for the URB fall chinook and for steelhead.

The lowered coho impact has made Oregon and Washington fishery managers move forward cautiously in considering desired harvest of marked hatchery coho. The Columbia River Compact on Tuesday approved 12-hour commercial fisheries that began Wednesday and Thursday evenings in Zones 4-5 as well as a daylight fishery Thursday from Bonneville to the river mouth.

Salmon for All President Jim Wells said he agreed with planned fisheries but felt more time was needed to harvest the 10,000 coho that remains on the gill-net fleet's allotment. Wells is a commercial fisherman.

"It's sad when we have these kind of runs and you can't fish for them," said Gary Soderstrom, head of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Steve Williams said he could understand why the gill-netters "are concerned and frustrated with the 8 percent limit we have for coho." Williams represented the ODFW at the Compact hearing; Bill Tweit represented the WDFW's director.

"We could potentially end up with surplus fish in places we don't want," Williams said. Returns in excess of hatchery needs must be disposed of. And some uncaught hatchery fish stray into streams to spawn, mixing with wild stocks.

In its previous 13 outings the fleet has caught 12,763 chinook, 8,432 coho and 2,968 white sturgeon. The combined sport-commercial ESA impacts to-date are 9.2 percent for URBs (the limit is 11 percent), 6.4 for the LRW fall cinook (10 percent limit), 35 percent for the LRH chinook (41 percent), 6.0 percent for coho (8 percent) and 1.1 percent for steelhead (2 percent).

ODFW and WDFW staffs estimate that this week's commercial fisheries, and the ongoing sport fishery, will boost URB impacts to 10.2 percent and coho impacts to from 7 to 7.6 percent. The estimated coho catch for this week's commercial outings is from 5,000 to 8,000 fish.

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