River mainstem commercial fishermen already
severely limited by the Endangered Species Act
say they are watching their limited
opportunities stolen away by hungry mammals --
sea lions and seals that appear to be visiting
the river in greater numbers than ever on the
heals of returning smelt and spring chinook
it's the duty of you guys at the state level
to start raising Cain," fisherman Bruce
Crookshanks told the Columbia River Compact
Thursday. The Compact's members set commercial
fishing seasons on the mainstem. Members Steve
Williams and Bill Tweit represent,
respectively, the directors of Oregon's and
Washington's departments of fish and wildlife.
commercial fleet is restricted to the pursuit
of "a handful of salmon and you have these
critters going hog wild," Crookshanks said.
Non-Indian sport and commercial fishers are
allowed a combined "impact" of 2 percent on
the upriver spring chinook return according to
the terms of an agreement between the states
and lower river treaty tribes. The NOAA
Fisheries has endorsed that agreement, which
is intended to protect Snake River and Upper
Columbia River spring chinook stocks that are
listed under the Endangered Species Act.
commercial fishers' share of that 2 percent
non-tribal allocation is 0.8 percent. Last
year researchers estimate that a growing
throng of sea lions snapped up 1.11 percent of
the returning salmonid run (steelhead and
salmon) in the waters just below Bonneville
Researchers from March 15 to the end of May
last year witnessed 117 individual sea lions
that have swum the more than 140 miles upriver
from the Pacific Ocean to the dam.
the initial year of a study carried out at
Bonneville by the Corps of Engineers, the
researchers estimated that at least 30
individuals sea lions, and as many as 36, were
identified in the Bonneville tailrace over the
study period, according to Robert Stansell,
leader for the study. As many as 11 lions were
spotted below the tailrace on any one day in
2002. In 2003 that total climbed to as many as
numbers of sea lions and seals have increased
considerably since 2000, at least in terms of
sightings at Bonneville. Sightings of only one
or two per year were reported until 2001, when
six were spotted below the facility's fish
ladder at one time. The upturn coincides with
large spring chinook returns of recent years.
The sea lions seem to follow into the river
the returning smelt, then remain in the river
to gorge on a main course of salmon.
said last year that researchers have estimated
that, on average, the sea lions need about 1 ½
to 2 salmon per day just to maintain their
Fisherman Gary Soderstrom said the pinnipeds
are "a horrible problem up and down the
river." Commercial fisheries thus far this
year have been limited to the area from the
river's mouth to its confluence with the
Willamette River at Portland.
studying them, but they aren't doing anything
about them," Soderstrom said of state and
federal agency research that monitors the
population trends of the pinnipeds, as well as
their impact on returning salmon. He said if
the salmon returns dropped to pre-2000 levels,
such a large aggregation of sea lions could
put a huge dent in the run.
Ponn, and fish buyer and commercial fisherman,
called the mammal problem "unbelievable." He
said that during a recent smelt fishing foray
into the Cowlitz River in southwest Washington
several sea lions were literally under his
boat as they worked to poach the little fish
from the nets.
Wells, a fisherman and president of Salmon for
All, said that during a recent test fishery
near the mouth at Astoria he witnessed three
salmon being thrown in the air by sea lions
during the first 10 minutes of fishing. The
two boats involved in the test fished the day
with only one salmon and one steelhead caught
in the nets, which Wells attributed to the
work of the sea lions.
urged the formation of a coalition of sport,
non-tribal commercial and tribal fishermen to
press officials for some action on the issue.
to get to work on this or it is going to
destroy it for everybody," Wells said.
pinnipeds are protected under the federal
Marine Mammal Protection Act. Lethal removal
is prohibited without a permit, which are hard
to obtain. Capturing the animals and hauling
them elsewhere is an option, but not a good
one. It was tried a decade and a half ago at
the Ballard Locks in Puget Sound, where the
lions were taking at times more than half the
returning steelhead. The animals were taken to
southern California and released.
joke was that they beat the trucks back,"
Stansell said of sea lions that quickly swam
back to the Northwest.
that the first sea lions of the year were
spotted at Bonneville Dam Feb. 22, three weeks
earlier than last year. As many as 10 may have
made their way upstream so far, taking 2-4
salmon a day. The fishing is not good there
yet. Only 195 spring chinook had passed
Bonneville as of March 17 out of a run that is
expected to number more than 360,000,
according to Corps counts. The steelhead count
was 255 through March 13.
upriver chinook run normally peaks in late
March or early April but it may be later
arriving this year.
Commercial fishers had caught 2,764 keepers
during five fisheries conducted so far in
March -- two 16-hour, two 24-hour and one
15-hour outings. The fishers can keep only
salmon marked with fin-clip, sturgeon and
shad, but must release all steelhead. The
fishers have been using 9-inch mesh nets as
required by the states as a means of allowing
catch of salmon while minimizing the encounter
of steelhead. The smaller steelhead can, for
the most part, slip through the 9-inch mesh
bigger nets are required during the time of
the year when large numbers of upriver fish
have yet to arrive and the steelhead run is at
its peak. The commercial nets are targeting
marked Willamette and other lower river
chinook. The Willamette run, expected to be
109,400 fish strong, normally arrives in
strength ahead of the upriver run.
fishery officials predict next week -- the
fleet will have to switch to 4 ¼-inch "tangle"
nets. That is when the upriver fishes'
presence is expected to swell. The smaller
mesh results in more steelhead being swept up
in the nets, but it causes them and the
chinook less harm than the larger mesh. The
mortality rate for steelhead and unmarked
salmon caught and released from the tangle
nets is estimated to be 18.5 percent, while it
is 40 percent for chinook and 30 percent for
steelhead released from the large mesh nets.
built a little bit, by week and by day,"
Williams said of the percentage of the overall
catch that is from upriver (above Bonneville)
hatcheries and spawning grounds. At the same
time, the steelhead runs may be dwindling.
During the 15-hour fishery conducted early
this week the fishers landed and kept 826
salmon, of which nearly a quarter were of
upriver origin. They released 551 unmarked
fish. There were no steelhead landed during
the most recent fishery.
the upriver run has made up 18 percent of the
landed catch and 21 percent of the total catch
(including the released fish).
that fishery that ended Tuesday, the
commercial fleet had incurred 14.4 percent of
its allowed upriver chinook impact and 9.9
percent of the 2 percent allowable steelhead
Compact on Thursday morning approved a 15-hour
fishery that was to begin at 6 that night
utilizing 9-inch mesh once again. A few
fishers argued for the use of 8-inch nets,
which they said would still let the steelhead
to swim through for the most part and allow
the fishermen to take capture the smaller,
marked salmon that are swimming through.
however, urged the more cautious approach of
continuing with the 9-inch.
the big mesh has "pushed aside the steelhead
issue. It's been a clean fishery. Let's not
mess it up," said Jack Marinkovich.
inclined to change the mesh. It's helping us
with the steelhead issue" despite lesser
chinook catch, Williams said.