Officials explain low coho mark rate in Columbia

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Having not kept a precise count, I’d guess about 25 percent of the coho we caught in six days of fishing this summer in the Columbia River estuary were fin-clipped.

Guide Jack Glass of Troutdale fished 15 days at Buoy 10 and encountered about the same 25 percent to 30 percent mark rate.

“It was the most (unclipped fish) I’ve ever seen down there,’’ he said.

Chinook fishing was very good at Buoy 10 this summer, but the daily bag limit was one. It would have been nice to fill the two-salmon limit with a hatchery coho.

And there was plenty of complaining on the river and at boat ramp, with lots of conspiracy theorists contending it’s all a plot to keep coho away from sportsmen to benefit the gillnetters and tribes.

Non-Indian commercial fishermen can keep unclipped coho, although the seasons are structured by timing and mesh size to minimize their catch. Tribal fishermen also can keep unclipped coho.

But not sport fishermen, not downstream of the Hood River Bridge.

So the purpose of this column is to shed some light on coho mark rates in the Columbia. Here’s what I’ve learned

• There were 18.5 million coho smolts released from hatcheries in the Columbia River system with 77.7 percent fin-clipped in 2010. Coho smolts in 2010 are this year’s adult returnees.

That data comes from Larrie LaVoy of NOAA Fisheries, the federal fish agency.

LaVoy said about 40 to 50 percent of the coho he caught at Buoy 10 were fin-clipped.

“I agree that (the) mark rate at Buoy 10 and in the ocean this year was lower than expected,’’ he said.

• The 2008-17 Columbia River management agreement between the states and treaty tribes calls for a release of 7.8 million coho upstream of Bonneville Dam.

Seventy-two percent are to be adipose fin-clipped and 28 percent not marked, said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and this state’s lead negotiator of the agreement with the tribes.

• There were 7.2 million coho smolts released upstream of Bonneville Dam in 2010 with 48 percent being adipose-fin clipped, said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Of the early stock coho (August-September returnees) smolts from upstream of Bonneville Dam, 36 percent were fin clipped, while 66 percent of the late stock (October-November adults) were clipped, she said.

At Bonneville Dam, 20 percent of the adult coho counted through mid-September were fin-clipped, she added.

These numbers beg the question: If the mark rate is supposed to be 72 percent, why was it only 48 percent in 2010?

Because the agreement setting a 72 percent mark rate was completed and signed in 2008 and it has taken time for some hatcheries in the upper Columbia to get ramped up, Norman said.

Coho adults returning this year would have been scheduled in 2008 for clipping in early 2009.

“There are a lot of complexities in altering schedules to include additional marking on top of the millions of fish marked in the basin,’’ Norman said. “It is not surprising that it all did not occur instantly.’’

It’s going to get better, said Pat Frazier, regional fish program manager in Southwest Washington.

“We are just now marking more and more fish in the upper river,’’ he said. “For example, we’re now marking 2.5 million fish coming out of the Klickitat that weren’t marked. Those mark rates are going to go up, not go down.’’

Legislation was passed about a decade ago requiring fish funded with federal dollars to be fin-clipped.

Norman said while all lower Columbia coho are marked, it been “a work in progress’’ to increase clipping in the upper watershed.

Plus, he added, there are hatchery programs designed for supplementation, in which hatchery coho are released into streams where they were extirpated.

Those fish are for the specific purpose of rebuilding the natural population and do not have to be clipped.

“Those are mostly in the upper Columbia and Snake,’’ he said.

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation and natural resources issues. He can be reached by calling 360-735-4555 or by email at al.thomas@columbian.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @col_outdoors