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NW Fishletter #366, February 6, 2017

[6] Fewer Columbia River Salmon, Smelt Returns Expected This Spring

Last year was a mediocre year for spring Chinook and sockeye, and the 2017 returns are expected to be even smaller, according to forecasts from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).

Scientists with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center say ocean conditions in 2015 and 2016--when some of this year's returning adult salmon would have been young and feeding--were not conducive to juvenile fish survival.

The science center's recently updated Chinook forecast for the Columbia River predicts poor returns in 2017 and 2018.

TAC biologists--who work for tribal, federal and state salmon managers--are also projecting meager returns of spring Chinook and sockeye.

The committee bases its forecasts on flow and spill conditions during the juvenile outmigration, ocean conditions, and jack counts (immature salmon returning ahead of schedule).

The 2017 upriver spring Chinook run--defined as all spring Chinook destined for areas above Bonneville Dam--is expected to total 160,000 fish, compared with 188,000 last year. Both are lower than the 10-year average.

This upriver run includes the Snake River wild spring/summer Chinook and upper Columbia wild spring Chinook, which are Endangered Species Act-listed fish. They, too, are projected to return in fewer numbers than last year.

It's a similar picture for lower river spring Chinook. Overall fewer fish--about 67,000 spring Chinook--are anticipated, bringing the 2017 forecasted total to about 20,000 less than last year and less than the decade average. The wild components of the run, all ESA-listed, are predicted to return in smaller numbers than in 2016.

TAC is estimating the return of upper Columbia summer Chinook at 63,000 fish. That compares with 91,000 last year. The upper Columbia summers are destined for areas above Priest Rapids.

The committee says to expect smaller runs of smelt as well. Returns of this sea-going species that heads back to the Columbia River in late winter were fairly strong in 2016, with abundance estimated at just above 5 million pounds.

This year's smelt abundance is anticipated to be similar to 2011 and 2012 returns, which were slightly under 3 million pounds.

Smelt--or eulachon, an ESA-listed species--spawn primarily in lower river tributaries, the Cowlitz and Sandy.

For the basin's sockeye returns, if 2017 stacks up to be like last year, it might not be all bad. The 2016 forecast was for a total of 102,000 sockeye destined for areas above Bonneville, but some 354,000 sockeye were counted passing the dam.

The 2017 forecast is for a modest 199,000 sockeye to pass Bonneville on their way to the Wenatchee, Okanogan, Yakima, Deschutes and Snake river basins.

TAC's projected distribution of sockeye to these tributaries in 2017 is 54,000 for the Wenatchee River; 138,000 for the Okanogan River; 4,000 for the Yakima River; 1,000 for the Deschutes River; and 1,400 for the Snake River. The TAC hasn't yet determined the 2016 return distribution.

For those hearty souls who fish the Columbia in winter, there are some authorized fisheries taking place. But generally the fishing community is waiting for spring season, which usually starts around March.

Oregon and Washington regulators meet Feb. 23 to set dates for spring Chinook fisheries. -Laura Berg

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: Laura Berg
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