Allen Thomas column: Tribes offer states advice in managing salmon fisheries

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

Published:

 

It long was practice by the Columbia River treaty tribes to avoid telling Washington and Oregon — at least in public — how to manage salmon fishing for non-Indians.

For decades, the tribes' testimony was "you manage your fishermen, we'll manage ours.''

About five years ago, that started changing, especially regarding spring chinook destined for the upper Columbia and Snake rivers.

Tribal fishermen get exasperated watching a huge sport fleet in the metropolitan area catch hundreds of spring chinook while daily counts at Bonneville Dam remain in single digits.

At last week's Columbia River Compact meeting in Portland, the tribes continued their trend of giving Washington and Oregon advice how to manage non-Indian fishing in the lower river.

"The tribes support focusing early mainstem sport and commercial fishing downstream of the mouth of the Willamette River given the large predicted run of Willamette spring chinook,'' said Herb Jackson, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe fish and wildlife committee.

"Minimizing fishing effort between Portland and Bonneville Dam early in the season will help ensure fish can pass Bonneville with a minimum of delay,'' Jackson added.

Non Indians can catch spring chinook until June 15 so there is "no reason to concentrate too much fishing effort in the lower river in the first part of the run,'' he said.

Scheduling breaks in the early-season non-Indian fisheries also was suggested.

Bruce Jim, a fish and wildlife committee member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, echoed Jackson.

It is a challenge, Jim said, "to sit idly waiting for salmon to reach our fishing areas while large and well-publicized fisheries are harvesting thousands of salmon in the lower river.''

Non-Indian monitoring

Jackson said the tribes are concerned about the states using creel surveys to assess the catch and release of wild fish.

"The tribes think that asking sport fishermen to accurately report the number of wild fish handled and released is unreliable and an inaccurate way of estimating the number of fish handled,'' he said.

Two years ago, the states committed to more work on estimating handle of unmarked fish other than creel interviews, Jackson said.

"The tribes have still not seen the reports from these efforts,'' he said.

Jim said he fears state budget problems may limit proper monitoring.

"There is also an incentive for fishers to not report catch and release of wild fish, because they know that doing so impacts their catch quota,'' Jim said. "We believe that the mortality of wild fish is higher than what is being counted by the state managers.''

He also said that while the tribe does not have immediate plans to fish for salmon and steelhead in the Willamette, that day may be coming.

"We no doubt at some point in the future will choose to return to our treaty reserved fisheries for salmon and steelhead in the Willamette or Clackamas,'' Jim said.

That day may come sooner is the tribe is frustrated by state or federal actions, he added.

Sea lions upstream

Jackson also mentioned sea lions in Bonneville pool "on a regular basis.''

"These animals have been a problem especially for spring fisheries,'' he said.

Stuart Ellis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said there were two or three sea lions during the fishing season upstream of Bonneville in 2011, including one which has remained in the pool all winter.

Allen Thomas covers hunting, fishing and other outdoor topics for The Columbian. He can reached at 360-735-4555 or by email at al.thomas@columbian.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @col_outdoors.