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NW Fishletter #268, November 12, 2009

[5] Skagit Chinook Run Best In Over 30 Years

Around 25,000 wild summer/fall chinook have made it back to the Skagit River, the largest return since 1974, when fish managers began keeping a closer eye on the run, after the Boldt decision gave Puget Sound tribes the right to harvest half the region's surplus salmon.

This year's number is more than twice the returns of the past two years, but only a little more than the 23,750-fish return in 2004. In 2005 and 2006, the run came in above 20,000 fish, as well.

In March 1999, the population was listed for protection under the ESA, along with other wild runs as far west as the Elwha River, and more than two dozen hatchery stocks in the Puget Sound region. That fall, only about 5,000 fish returned to the Skagit.

The Skagit accounts for about half of the wild summer/fall chinook return in Puget Sound, and that's after about half of them are caught in various fisheries, most prominently off Vancouver Island. A 2008 treaty negotiation with Canada will reduce their impact some on the Skagit run.

Before the new harvest regime was put in place, Seattle City Light biologist Ed Connor said the harvest impact was more like 60 percent.

But enough fish made it back this year to allow a sport chinook harvest in the Skagit for the first time in 16 years, Connor told NW Fishletter.

The river also saw a monster return of pink salmon this year. Official numbers were in the 1.2-million fish range, but Connor said it might be as high as 2 million.

The big pink run could help with improving fish runs in the Skagit, said Connor, especially steelhead, which were included for protection under the ESA in 2007. He said they should be great fertilizer to boost productivity of the other fish stocks in the river.

The official abundance level for recovering the upper Skagit chinook is around 26,000 fish if productivity is low--only one recruit per spawner. But if productivity rises to nearly four recruits per spawner, the abundance level needs to be only around 5,000 fish.

For the lower Skagit, recovery-level abundance levels are pegged between 3,900 and 16,000, depending on how many adult fish return from each spawner. -B. R.

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