WDFW statement on Columbia River fishery closure

Ron Warren
Assistant Director, Fish Program
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
September 19, 2018

The recent closure of salmon fishing in a large portion of the Columbia River is highly unusual in recent years, and unfortunately caught anglers by surprise. With weeks remaining in the scheduled season, fishery managers closed the salmon fishery Sept. 13 from the river's mouth upstream to its confluence with the Snake River.

This year's fall salmon season presented a challenge even before it got underway. The preseason run forecast projected a return of 205,000 adult upper river bright (URB) chinook salmon, a key component of the total chinook run bound for waters above Bonneville Dam. That forecast was down 25 percent from last year and 53 percent from the 10-year average, signaling the need for a conservative fishery this year.

These declining projections in chinook returns are largely due to drought and poor ocean conditions in 2015, when this year's fish were migrating downstream to the Pacific for the first time. For that reason, the poor runs may continue into 2019 when 4-year-old fish – usually the largest percentage of any given run – start to return to the Columbia River.

In pre-season planning, Washington and Oregon fishery managers restricted fishing seasons for recreational and commercial fisheries this year to keep harvest levels within the guidelines prescribed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In Washington state, recreational fisheries for chinook salmon were cut short from the mouth of the Columbia River to Bonneville Dam and commercial openings were held to six days, later reduced to four.

Unfortunately, it became clear by early September that returns of URB chinook were lagging well behind the modest level projected in the preseason forecast. This triggered a sharp decrease in the run forecast for several fall chinook populations, including Snake River salmon listed under the ESA. This, in turn, reduced allowable impact rates on those ESA-listed fish below the level already taken, thereby exceeding the federal cap.

Just how much we exceeded that cap won't be known until the accounting process for the chinook runs is completed this winter, but it is clear that non-treaty fisheries were over the ESA limit for Snake River fish. Under these circumstances, fishery managers would be in violation of the ESA if they allowed fisheries to continue and caused additional mortalities to ESA-listed chinook, even if they resulted from releasing fish. 

We recognize that thousands of anglers are eager to see areas of the Columbia River reopen to salmon fishing. For that to happen, fishery managers must be able to demonstrate that ESA-listed Snake River wild fish are no longer likely to be caught or handled in the fishery. With that in mind, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon are working together to analyze all the relevant data, focusing on areas that will be clear of Snake River chinook first.

We know there are healthy numbers of harvestable coho returning to the Columbia over the next month that could be harvested, so we are making every effort to explore the options. While all fisheries will be examined, we don't anticipate being able to open any fisheries on the mainstem Columbia River above Bonneville Dam.

Farther downstream, however, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon have already reopened fishing in several off-channel Select Areas near the mouth of the Columbia that were closed by emergency rule the previous week. A new review of coded wire tag data found that fisheries conducted in those areas after the third week of September waters have virtually no impact on upriver ESA listed chinook salmon.

Based on discussions with NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency in charge of determining compliance with the ESA, the two states will open three Select Areas to recreational fishing Sept. 24 and to commercial fisheries the previous day. State fishery managers will continue to coordinate with NOAA and seek to open individual fisheries if the analyses show it is appropriate to do so. 

It is a rare event to exceed an ESA impact limit, and we take this apparent overage very seriously. Fishery managers take great care to plan fisheries that remain within the federally allowed ESA limit, and we will be considering changes to our management to avoid repeating this situation. After all, we expect project proponents and others whose actions affect salmon to adhere to ESA requirements, and we have the same expectations for our own areas of responsibility.

For more information, see the most recent Columbia River Compact Fact Sheet dated September 11, 2018.


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