Updated: 8:45 a.m., June 7, 2019 with more comments from the Army Corps of Engineers
A record set just last year at Bonneville could soon be broken as the Columbia River’s shad count has surged to highs never seen so early.
Through Thursday, June 5, a whopping 2,875,519 have been tallied at the dam, with 86 percent of those fish — 2.5 million — coming in just the past seven days, a meteoric rise captured by a Fish Passage Center graph.
The run so far has already topped the 10-year average overall return, hit 2.5 million fish four days faster than the next closest run, and set a new best seven-day count ever.
One observer thinks that 2018’s high mark of 6.1 million could be exceeded by 5 million, give or take, at this pace.
However, it’s also early and unclear if the 2019 return will exhibit the multiple peaks across much of June that other years’ returns have. If it doesn’t, this rocket could fall short.
This morning Jeffrey Henon, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, says the contractor that performs the fish counts for federal dam operators was asked to double check the numbers.
He said that 250,000 shad is the daily capacity of a “crowder” device at the fish-counting station, and counts above that can diminish the accuracy.
But a short while later Henon called back to say the review had been finished.
“Bottom line, the numbers are accurate,” Henon said.
It also represents good news for the fishermen who gather on the bank below Bonneville to drift shad darts along bottom, or anchor on seams below there and well downriver to run Dick Nites and other small spoons behind lead droppers.
The bony fish are played for sport and quite a few are taken home to be canned or used for sturgeon or crab bait.
In his outdoor report yesterday, Terry Otto at The Columbian in Vancouver noted that 1,730 were kept last weekend by 212 anglers on the Washington bank in the gorge, with fish also being caught in the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day Pools.
Nearly 180,000 are already above McNary Dam, over 5,000 are above Ice Harbor on the Snake.
According to the 2019 WDFW and ODFW joint staff report for Columbia spring and summer fisheries, last year’s sport kept catch of 250,000 shad below Bonneville was the highest on record. With low market demand, commercial fisheries are minimal.
Washington anglers won’t need a license to fish for them this Saturday and Sunday as it’s Free Fishing Weekend. There is no size, daily or possession limit on shad.
Not much is known about the Columbia’s shad or where they go in the Pacific, much less why their returns are surging.
“I don’t have a great answer for that, and I’m not sure anyone does,” says ODFW’s Tucker Jones, who manages the big river for Oregon.
While he and much of the rest of Northwest anglerdom would probably prefer to see daily Chinook, coho, sockeye and steelhead counts as astronomical as those we’re seeing with shad, the nonnative species that feeds on plankton throughout its anadromous lifecycle may be benefiting in part from warmer waters and ocean conditions that negatively impacted salmonids.
While 2004’s and 2005’s big shad runs occurred in years that also saw high overall Chinook returns, that coincidence didn’t repeat last year nor is it expected to this year.
Jones says there’s no research backing this up, but it’s possible that young shad and young salmon could be competing for the same forage in the Columbia and ocean before Chinook and coho switch to a different diet as they grow larger.
Per a species profile put together by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, from 10 million to 20 million shad may annually actually enter the Columbia, with most spawning below Bonneville, meaning the dam count reflects a fraction of the overall run.
Shad can also bypass the counting windows by going through the locks.
Even if no other shad crossed the dam this year, 2019 would still go down as 10th best since shad began to be tallied in 1946, primarily on the strength of the last seven days, which includes the third best one-day count.
While Wednesday’s 412,448 shad was nothing to shake a stick at, the largest daily passages on record occurred on June 5 and 6, 2003, when 504,724 and then 520,664 were tallied.
How high will this year’s run go? Stay tuned.