This year's forecasts for adult spring Chinook returns to the Columbia Basin were already dismal--but by the end of the season, they were downright depressing. Although numbers won't be finalized until later this year, the preseason forecast of a 99,300-fish run over Bonneville Dam was slashed to a prediction of 72,895 spring Chinook passing the dam by June 15--two-thirds of the March forecast.

That's roughly 40.5 percent the 10-year average of 180,000 spring Chinook returns.

Even the original predictions put spring Chinook returns at their lowest since 2007, although still well above 12,800 fish--the record low run in 1995.

In Idaho, fish managers closed the lower Salmon and Little Salmon rivers to Chinook fishing after just two weeks, and are predicting that some hatcheries in the Clearwater River basin won't meet their needs for broodstock.

Joe DuPont, Idaho Department of Fish and Game's fisheries regional manager, discussed the fishing closures on his blog on June 3. "There is no sugar coating this update because, to tell you the truth, it is very disappointing and it is going to bum people out or just make them downright angry," he wrote.

Including buffers for the fish that don't make it, fish managers believe 3,133 hatchery spring Chinook will make it back to the Clearwater River--631 fish short of the 4,395 Chinook that hatcheries need for broodstock. In the Rapid River basin, an estimated 3,654 hatchery fish will come back, about 650 fish more than the 2,353 fish that hatcheries will use.

After explaining the numbers, DuPont added, "I'm not going to argue with you that this fishery was way too short, the closure was unexpected, it's not good for the economy, and people who like to fish the Little Salmon River got '......' (you can put whatever word you want here)."

But, he concluded, the right thing to do is to meet broodstock needs and hope that the fish they collect this year will make a difference for future fisheries. He reported that the Fish and Game Commission will meet soon to determine upcoming Chinook salmon fishing opportunities in the South Fork Salmon and upper Salmon rivers.

Washington and Oregon, too, had a short and restricted spring Chinook fishing season; and some Columbia River hatcheries also may not meet broodstock needs, said Chris Donley, regional fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We haven't seen where all the fish are going to end up," he said, "But there are probably some hatcheries that are going to end up short on broodstock."

While the return of hatchery fish determines how many are available for fishing, it's not just numbers of hatchery returns they're watching. "I'm extremely concerned for wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin, and less so for hatchery salmon," he said.

Donley explained that the state agency manages for hatchery fish with a 30-percent buffer in case--as in a year like this--their forecasts are off. But as for wild fish, "Until we see them on the spawning ground, we won't fully understand what happened."

This year's spring Chinook jack returns--the younger males that come back a year early--are also lower than anticipated and essentially the same as last year, Donley said.

Numbers are used to help calculate next year's run sizes. "That doesn't bode well for us to see a substantial improvement overall of spring Chinook" next year, Donley said.

As spring Chinook numbers in the Columbia and other Pacific Coast rivers remain low, Donley said there are a lot of factors at play. "I think ocean conditions are a major driver," he said. Under good ocean conditions, other variables--such as predators or losses at hydroelectric projects--get masked by overall high survival, he said. "In a situation where ocean conditions are poor, all the other variables add up. It isn't just one issue."

Donley noted that since 2015--which brought the warm ocean condition known as The Blob and caused massive disruptions in the ocean's food web--fish managers have been very cautious about forecasting returns. "The black hole is, we don't understand when the ocean is going to turn around. And it's the biggest variable at play--the one we have absolutely no control over," he said.

But this is also not the first time they've seen poor Chinook returns, nor is it the worst. "The positive part for salmon and steelhead is, they're resilient," he said. "If you ask me is it alarming that all these numbers are so poor--are they going to disappear from the face of the Earth? I'd say, 'Probably not.' These fish are, for the most part, very resilient," he said.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.