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Harvest Managers Predict Largest Snake River Fall Chinook Run In Four Decades
August 14, 2009 Fish and Wildlife Columbia Basin Bulletin
Fishery managers predict this year will see the largest Snake River fall chinook salmon run in four decades with as many as 28,000 adults expected to cross Lower Granite Dam on their way back to Idaho.

Most of them are headed for the Snake River above the mouth of the Clearwater River, and Idaho Fish and Game has proposed a fall chinook harvest season on the Snake River between Lewiston and Hells Canyon Dam.

A record dating back to 1975 compiled by the Fish Passage Center shows last year as the high-water mark with 16,628 fall chinook counted passing the lower Snake River's Lower Granite Dam in southeast Washington. Next best is 14,960 in 2004.

The numbers nowadays dwarf those of the not-so-distant past. The yearly counts from 1976 through 1992 never topped 1,000, ranging from a low of 337 to a high of 944 during the period. During that time most of the returns were naturally produced fish. Releases of fish from Lyons Ferry Hatchery began in the early 1980s and have been greatly ramped up in recent years with production at Lyons Ferry and from the Nez Perce Tribe. The Snake River fall chinook in April 1992 were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Since then the stock's status has edged upward with the help of hatchery programs, habitat restoration and improvements at Columbia-Snake hydro projects that help ease passage for fish migrating to and from the Pacific Ocean. Most of the Snake River fall chinook must pass eight hydro projects.

The vast majority of the returning fish now are of hatchery origin. U.S. v Oregon's Technical Advisory Committee estimated in preseason that about 6,600 wild Snake River fall chinook would enter the mouth of the Columbia this year on their spawning run.

TAC Chair Stuart Ellis said about 2,600 wild fall chinook are expected to make it to Lower Granite, the eighth dam in the system. That level of escapement would be comparable to totals over the past seven years that have ranged between 2,000 and 3,000.

Also expected to reach the dam are 20,000 hatchery fall chinook and the total could easily rise to 25,000, Ellis said. TAC's federal, state and tribal fishery experts annually create and update salmon and steelhead run-size forecasts.

A 28,000 total "is not an unreasonable number," Ellis said. Jack returns the past two years are the largest on record for Lower Granite. Jacks are 2-year-old fish that return before they are fully mature. Their numbers bodes well for the strength of 3-, 4- and 5-year-old age classes returning this year.

Ellis also said it is believed the fish experienced relatively good conditions as they matured in the Pacific. And, the hatchery output has risen in recent years to about 5.9 million juvenile fall chinook released in the Clearwater drainage and in the mainstem Snake immediately below the Hells Canyon Dam and elsewhere.

The released juvenile fish originate from Lyons Ferry and the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery. Some of the young fish are released from Lyons Ferry, located downstream between Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams. Several hundred thousand have also been used in recent years by researchers conducting an evaluation how barge-transported Snake River fall chinook survive as compared to fish that migrate to the ocean in-river.

The vast majority of the releases are at tribal acclimation sites on the Clearwater and on the Snake upstream of Lower Granite's reservoir. Many of those supplementation fish will be allowed to spawn in the wild on return as adults.

"That's a pile of fish," Ellis of the hatchery releases. Ellis is a fisheries biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"Everyone's expecting a lot of fish up there," he said of 2009 expectations.

The Snake River fall chinook "evolutionarily significant unit" the definition of the ESA-protected stock -- includes all naturally spawned populations of fall-run chinook salmon in the mainstem Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam, and in the Tucannon River in southeast Washington, the Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers in Oregon and the Salmon and Clearwater rivers in Idaho, as well as four artificial propagation programs: the Lyons Ferry Hatchery, Fall Chinook Acclimation Ponds Program, Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery, and Oxbow Hatchery fall-run Chinook hatchery programs. The hatchery fish are not protected by the listing's take provisions and can be harvested.

If approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission during its Aug. 17 meeting, the fall chinook season would open Sept. 1, the same day as the Snake River steelhead harvest season opens. It would remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week until Oct. 31 or until further notice.

The daily limit would be one adult or jack fall chinook, and three in possession; only fish with a clipped adipose fin, evidenced by a healed scar, may be kept. Anglers may keep 40 salmon for the year, including spring, summer and fall chinook.

All salmon and steelhead with an intact adipose fin must be immediately released unharmed back to the water.

Fishing rules are the same as those for steelhead. Anglers may use only barbless hooks no larger than five-eighths inch from the point to the shank. When the daily, possession or season limit is reached, the angler must stop fishing for salmon, including catch-and-release. It is unlawful to take or fish for salmon and steelhead by snagging. Salmon and steelhead caught in a legal manner must be either released or killed immediately after landing.

Anglers must have a valid Idaho fishing license and salmon permit in possession to fish for salmon.

The Snake River would open to fall chinook in four sections:

-- from the Washington-Idaho border upstream to the Blue Bridge (U.S. Highway 12 between Lewiston and Clarkston).

-- from Blue Bridge upstream to the Oregon-Washington border.

-- from Oregon-Washington border upstream to the mouth of Sheep Creek.

-- from the mouth of Sheep Creek upstream to Hells Canyon Dam.

No fall chinook may be harvested in the Clearwater River.

The Washington-Idaho boundary is a line from a posted sign on western side of Confluence Island due south to the point off the Green Belt boat ramp. The mouth of the Clearwater River is a line from a posted sign on the north bank, south to the western-most point on the south bank.

A map showing the boundaries is available on Page 70 of the 2008-2009 Idaho Fishing Seasons and Rules brochure.

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