The lower Columbia River will remain closed to steelhead fishing until further notice to avoid the incidental catch of protected upriver spring chinook salmon, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon announced last Wednesday.
The announcement effectively delays a fishery for hatchery steelhead that was scheduled to open May 16 from the Interstate 5 Bridge downriver to the Rocky Point/Tongue Point line a few miles east of Astoria, Ore.
The steelhead closure could extend as late as June 16, unless returns of upriver spring chinook begin to pick up, said Cindy LeFleur, WDFW's Columbia River policy coordinator. The closure did not affect the shad fishery, which opened downstream from Bonneville Dam on May 16 as scheduled.
"For the second straight year, returns of upriver spring chinook have fallen short of expectations," LeFleur said. "It's disappointing that we have to delay the steelhead fishery, but we need to do everything we can to conserve wild chinook salmon still in the river."
LeFleur said the delay in the steelhead fishery was triggered by an updated run forecast for upriver spring chinook, which indicates that only about half as many fish will return this year as originally expected. While the pre-season forecast predicted a run of nearly 300,000 chinook, the current estimate anticipates a return of 120,000 to 150,000 fish.
The spring chinook fishery in the lower Columbia River has been closed since mid-April, under a new agreement between Washington and Oregon that delays a larger portion of the season in case the run falls short of expectations. Columbia River anglers have also been required to release any spring chinook they catch above Bonneville Dam since May 1.
"This year's spring chinook fishery was designed to be conservative, due in large part to the unpredictability of the run in recent years," LeFleur said. "Last year, we counted a high number of immature jack salmon, which suggested a strong return of adult fish this year. But the adult chinook just haven't materialized in the numbers expected."
LeFleur said the action to delay the steelhead fishery is specifically designed to protect wild upriver spring chinook, which are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Although all anglers are required to release any wild chinook salmon they intercept in the Columbia River, some of those fish die from the encounter.
"We conduct these fisheries under strict federal limits on incidental mortality rates," LeFleur said. "When the run size is lower than expected, there is very little margin for error."
While the opening date for the steelhead fishery remains uncertain, LeFleur said the season will not get started later than June 16, when most spring chinook salmon have returned to hatcheries or spawning areas.
"At that point, the focus switches to summer chinook," she said. "We really hope those runs are more encouraging than this year's spring chinook returns."
For updates on the lower Columbia River steelhead season, LeFleur recommends that steelhead anglers check WDFW's website, wdfw.wa.gov, or call the Fishing Hotline, (360) 902-2500.