OLYMPIA – While they're gearing up for Memorial Day weekend and the official start of the summer tourism season, many business owners along the Columbia River are still counting their blessings from a hatchery spring chinook fishery that kept cash registers ringing.
Some expect the spring fisheries were just the beginning of what will be a memorable year for Columbia River fishers and local economies.
A record return of 410,000 upper Columbia River spring chinook was the largest since record-keeping began in the late 1930s, and biologists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) expect a large return of fall salmon as well.
WDFW scientists attribute the large run this spring and a large run projected for fall salmon to good river outflows in 1998 and 1999, the years the fish were out- migrating to the ocean – and to good ocean conditions in the salmons' ocean-rearing phase.
The mainstem Columbia River fisheries for hatchery spring chinook through April resulted in a total of 176,000 angler trips, and anglers took home 26,000 fish. It was the longest season since 1977 and the largest catch since 1973.
"The saying of the year for this fishery was that there were so many people out there you couldn't buy a bag of chips west of the Bonneville Dam," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (NSIA). "According to a national survey, every salmon angler trip is worth about $103 to the economy. The spring sport fishery on the mainstem this year gave local economies on both sides of the river about $15.4 million in direct business." That figure doesn't include money spent to catch fish in the tributaries.
Hamilton of the NSIA said the emergence of the cell phone and the internet played a big role in the number of recreational anglers who turned out. "Thirty years ago, it would take weeks to hear where the fishing was hot, but now you see people out in their boats with their cell phones and calling their friends from the river banks. Word of mouth spreads fast with a cell phone."
WDFW Director Jeff Koenings said it's difficult to know the true economic impact of fisheries such as the spring chinook fishery.
"But we were pleased about the large return and pleased that we could offer fisheries based on abundance of fish returning," Koenings said. "This selective sport fishery targeting hatchery spring chinook was made possible by the multi-year conservation agreement reached by the Columbia River Treaty tribes, the federal government and the states of Washington and Oregon earlier this year. That agreement allowed us to offer good recreational opportunities while making sure to protect weak, wild stocks of fish."
Non-fishers were also able to reap the benefits from this year's record upriver spring chinook run, as commercial fishers provided fish to consumers. Commercial fishers were allowed some opportunity using traditional gear and also experimenting with tangle nets. Using traditional gear, the Columbia River gillnet fishing industry caught 5,740 spring chinook in the fishery that lasted through early March.
Koenings said during the next two to three years WDFW hopes to employ more selective gear in the commercial gillnet fisheries, allowing more time and access for commercial fishers to the more abundant hatchery stocks, while protecting weak, wild stocks. He said these tools could provide more certainty and predictability to the commercial seasons over time.
"Predictable seasons lead to the development of niche markets that maximize the economic value of commercially caught salmon," Koenings said.
Frances Clark of the Northwest Gillnetters Association agreed and said selective gears and niche marketing will be the future of commercial fishing, bringing continued benefits to local economies.
"The spring chinook are an excellent fish that bring an average price of $26 for a fish dinner at a white-tablecloth restaurant," Clark said. "It works out to $800 a fish going into the local economies, and that doesn't count the business purchases by the commercial fishers -- boats, trailers, special vehicles to haul the fish, diesel fuel, nets. Commercial fishing has great economic value, especially to the rural communities along the Columbia River."
During the sport fisheries, retailers in communities near the river reported a gear and bait buying frenzy. Some said gear was selling so fast they couldn't get it on shelves and display racks, and anglers were buying it out of the packing boxes.
Bob Schlecht, owner of Bob's Outdoor in Longview, saw a 70 percent increase in fishing gear sales, and business was up 50 percent in sporting goods.
"April last year was huge, but this year was even 70 percent bigger than that," Schlecht said. "We were at our limit in April, opening early and staying open late. I put 2,000 miles on my car just keeping stocked on fishing gear. We saw people from as far north as Seattle and from way down into Oregon. It was a really neat experience, like Christmas for fishing. Crazy, crazy. We enjoyed it."
B.G. Eilertson, merchandise manager for G.I. Joe stores, said in April he worked in a King County store and waited on customers there who were gearing up to head for the Columbia. The fishery brought lots of new enthusiasts in to buy gear. Eilertson said during the April fishery the Vancouver store, not typically a top-echelon seller, was No. 2 in sport gear sales only to Hayden Meadows, Ore., the chain's top seller. The Columbia River-area G.I. Joe stores, including the Vancouver store, moved about 12,000 of one popular lure -- about $50,000 in sales -- in 26 April business days.
Joe and Sandra Gamble, owners of The Store at North Bonneville Chevron, said that during the spring season, they were so busy they had to put on extra help, and Joe said he was constantly on the telephone keeping up on orders for bait and everything else carried in his store.
"I haven't advertised the fishing part of our business -- the bait and tackle and licenses, and still, fishing affects us tremendously. I'd say it's 40 percent of our business, directly and indirectly, between licenses, gear and indirect purchases such as gas and food. Now my parking lot is full for shad season, and we're looking forward to fall; we're hearing good things about those upcoming salmon runs."