Mayday! Columbia Springer Run Sets New Low Through April

Ever try to start your rig and it just won’t turn over?

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That’s what comes to mind this morning as I look at the spring Chinook count.

Faced with high, cold flows pumping down the Columbia, the 2017 run has had a heckuva time getting going. Only 10 through March 15, triple digits not reached till April 8, the thousand-fish mark breached April 21, just under 3,350 through yesterday.

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A FISHING BOAT RUNS UPSTREAM IN THE WESTERN COLUMBIA GORGE ON THE LAST DAY OF THE FISHERY THIS YEAR. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The collection of emails from Fish HQ with the words “record low” is slowly building towards grimmer signs.

The Bonneville tally through yesterday, April 30, is less than 60 percent of the old record low for the same date, and not even 6 percent of the 10-year average.

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A total of 3,347 have been counted, well below 1949’s 5,770, the former record low.

And it’s a fraction of 1998’s and 1999’s very low runs in the upper 30,000s, though those appear to have been early-timed returns.

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“Weird year. Washington Lower Columbia hatcheries are on track based on the preseason forecasts,” says fisheries biologist Joe Hymer in Vancouver. “Willamette only has 16 fish through the falls fishway through April 27.”

“Flows, water temps, and pinnipeds all probably are affecting the counts,” he adds.

It almost felt like the run was going to turn over coming out of April’s second fishery extension. Good numbers were caught, especially below Bonneville.

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But in the week after it closed, the count didn’t do much.

Elizabeth Daly at Oregon State University wonders if fishcounting devices at the dam have been affected by water conditions, but she has her doubts that high flows are slowing the progress of springers upstream.

Daly, a senior faculty research assistant at OSU’s and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies in Newport, was a coauthor of a paper published earlier this year that predicted this year’s springer run could come in well below the forecast of 166,000-plus above-Bonneville-bound fish.

She says the paper didn’t give a specific forecast, but gave a range of 200,000 down to 80,000, based on different indicators.

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Bill Monroe had an interesting tidbit in an Oregonian article that came out 10 days ago. He wrote:

John North, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Columbia River program, said a rough look at 152 coded wire tags recovered by fish checkers from anglers showed nearly a quarter of the salmon were close to the 24-inch mark.

However, he said, all were 4- and 5-year-old adults.

When this year’s returning adults went to sea as juveniles in summer 2015, The Blob was at its strongest, most destructive for Northwest fish and wildlife.

Offshore surveys found spring Chinook that were “thin, with empty stomachs, just not doing well,” says Daly.

(OSU/NOAA)

“That first year is really critical to survival to adulthood,” she says.

Many probably died, starved or eaten.

Perhaps for some reason this year’s springers are just behaving differently, Daly wonders.

Similar to the adult count, jacks are just 2 percent of the 10-year average. Packed with fat for their long upstream journeys to spawning grounds they’ll visit in summer, maybe springers can afford to wait a bit for better flows.

But on the other hand, steelhead don’t appear to be having issues at Bonneville. Though this year’s return is below the average over the past decade, that rate held steady through April.

This speculation springs to mind: Perhaps a Blob-hamstrung year-class just doesn’t have the strength to swim upstream in the face of such cold volumes of water pouring downstream?

I call this my “have your springer and eat it too” theory.

For the time being, me and Daly will continue watching the dam count — “every day,” she says — hoping there’s some gas in the tank somewhere.

R-r.

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