Spring Chinook fishing will not reopen on the Lower Columbia and gorge pools, nor will there be a nontreaty commercial opener below Bonneville, state managers decided this afternoon.
“I think perhaps no action is the best action,” said ODFW’s Tucker Jones.
The decision came after a three-plus-hour-long conference call that featured an unusual alignment of many recreational and commercial fishermen coming out against the staff proposal to open five days for the sport fleet between Warrior Rock and the state line east of McNary Dam, and 11 hours for netters between Hayden Island and Beacon Rock, and in favor of getting as many springers back to hatcheries as possible.
With growing concern throughout the upper basin that some federal, tribal and state hatcheries won’t meet broodstock goals, holding fisheries would send “a fairly bad message to the public,” said guide Bob Rees.
“I don’t support the recommendations for commercial or sport fisheries,” he stated.
“Very rarely would I agree with Bob Rees,” said Jim Wells a short while later, “but I would today.”
Both men were speaking for themselves as they were so little time to run the proposals past their boards – the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association and Salmon For All. A fact sheet with ODFW and WDFW staff recommendations wasn’t emailed out until 12 minutes before the call.
They and others who spoke during lengthy public comment might have thrown some elbows during the call, but the unifying sentiment boiled down to one of conserving salmon for the future.
Earlier this week, the Technical Advisory Committee downgraded run expectations from 81,700 above-Bonneville-bound springers to 72,000, a 12 percent reduction. Passage at the dam sits at 43,029 as of Tuesday, May 19.
Lance Hebdon, an Idaho Fish and Game official, called this “the worst run since 1999 and said that the Clearwater River complex of hatcheries was now facing a “shortage of nearly 1,300 adults below full collection.”
He said some of that could be backfilled with fish from Little White Salmon Hatchery above Drano Lake, which has met its escapement goal already, though nearby Wind River, which uses the same stock, has a long way to go to meet its needs.
There are also concerns for Yakama and Warm Springs facilities, ODFW’s Round Butte on the Deschutes, and a hatchery at Chief Joseph on the Upper Columbia is expected to be “well short.”
It’s been a very unusual season on the lower end of the big river for sport anglers, who saw fishing shut down in late March by the states in reaction to Washington’s angling closure in response to Covid-19.
After nearly six weeks, the waters were reopened May 5 for four days, and then four more days, with the last one today. Catches have been low, with many fishermen pointing to high flows.
“I’m sitting up here at Bonneville Dam and the water’s almost over to Highway 14. That’s not great for fishermen,” said guide Bill Monroe Jr.
He was also among those who were perplexed that ODFW and WDFW were even considering the openers given broodstock concerns.
WDFW’s Bill Tweit defended state staffers. Pointing to fisheries policies, he said that the proposals had been “reasonable to bring forward because they followed the policy.”
There were fish available for harvest for both fleets. Sport fishing was proposed to be open for Memorial Day Weekend continuing through Wednesday, May 27, while the commercial tangle net fishery would have been for 11 hours tomorrow.
The latter opener drew pushback from both netters, who worried about how they could prosecute their fishery given handling and time constraints, and increasing shad schools, and sport anglers, who saw bringing the nontreaty fleet back onto the mainstem as “the continuing erosion of the original Columbia River Reforms,” in the words of angler Brian McLachlan.
The last time there were was a commercial spring season on the big river was in 2016, though there are annual market fisheries in the off-channel SAFE waters near the mouth. Fish and Wildlife Commission policy this year allowed for 75 percent of Endangered Species Act impacts on springers to be used by sport fisheries, 25 percent by nontribal netters.
As for not fishing when some hatcheries could fail to meet goals, Tweit said that if that was applied “literally, we wouldn’t have opened a spring Chinook fishery for the last 25 years” because there are always going to be some facilities that may struggle, let alone wild stocks meeting escapement goals. Spring Chinook fisheries are tightly managed because of ESA listings.
But in the end, with “fairly systemic” shortfalls, Tweit agreed with ODFW’s Jones on taking a course of no action.
“Additional fishing just creates a hole for us four years in the future,” he acknowledged. “We don’t need to do that.”
Tweit added that he found the mutual concern expressed by sport and commercial fishermen for conservation during the call to be “heartening.”