A Record Year For Columbia River Fall Chinook

A Record Year For Columbia River Fall Chinook
by Courtney Flatt
Northwest Public Radio

Sept. 11, 2013

Fall chinook have kept fish counters at Bonneville Dam busy. With several weeks left in the strongest part of this year’s run, numbers are already close to beating the previous record set 10 years ago.

Counts are on track to surpass what fish managers had predicted would be an already strong run for the upriver brights.

So far this year, fish counters have spotted more than 530,000 adult fall chinook — add to that more than 62,000 caught in upriver fisheries. Fish managers say the salmon run will remain strong through September. The previous record was more than 703,000 fish in 2003 at the Columbia River mouth.

“We’re going to beat that probably in the next couple of days,” said Stuart Ellis, a fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “It’s possible that the run is just a little over halfway done.”

Monday saw a record-breaking one-day total of 63,870 fall chinook pass through the Bonneville Dam.

Ellis said the strong numbers are due in part to several high spring river flows, spilling water over dams and good ocean conditions.

“This fall chinook run is not only big, but it’s got a lot of natural-origin fish going to a lot of different places,” he said.

That means a lot of the fall chinook passing by the Bonneville Dam, so far, have been wild. He says fall chinook predictions are also high for the Snake River that flows from Idaho along the Oregon border and into southeastern Washington. The same goes for the Klamath River in northern California and southern Oregon.

The story is different in Puget Sound, said Pat Pattillo, salmon policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Pattillo, who began his career monitoring upriver bright runs, said Puget Sound numbers are much smaller than the Columbia River runs on a good year. “If we’re lucky, 20- or 30,000,” Pattillo said.

Pattillo said Puget Sound salmon are also much more difficult to count during the middle of the runs. The big difference: dams. Dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers make it easy to count fish. Salmon runs in Puget Sound can be counted when they pass by locks in downtown Seattle, Pattillo said. Often, fish managers aren’t sure of the exact counts from the sound until the fish have spawned out.

“Sometimes we are surprised on the positive side, and sometimes we are surprised on the low side,” Pattillo said.

Another main difference between the Columbia River and Puget Sound fall chinook is where they travel once they reach the ocean. Columbia River fall chinook swim much farther north — near southeast Alaska.

“If they have done really well, it means the environment must be really good: the food, the conditions were really good for them,” Pattillo said. “Very few of the fish from Puget Sound migrate as far north as that, so they are going to be affected in the ocean in a different way.”

As far as the high Columbia River returns, Ellis said the recent counts are exciting.

“If we manage these fish correctly, and do the things that we need to do to take care of their habitat and take care of their passage conditions, it’s possible to get big runs of fish,” Ellis said.