States delay commercial fishing for spring chinook

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Commercial fishing for spring chinook salmon in the lower Columbia River will be delayed until April 9 with the net fleet then likely to be limited to seven to nine fish per vessel.

The Columbia River Compact decided on Monday not to have a commercial tangle-net fishery on Tuesday in order to allow more hatchery-origin spring chinook to enter the river. Sport fishing remains closed, as scheduled, on Tuesday.

Test netting in the Cowlitz and Wahkiakum county portions of the lower Columbia on Sunday caught 25 chinook and nine steelhead for 16 drifts.

State biologists proposed a tangle-net fishery from 1:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday. They predicted a catch of about 1,200 chinook.

State officials, though, decided to wait a week based partially on testimony from commercial fishermen.

The commercials are allocated 1,200 spring chinook from waters upstream of Bonneville Dam prior to a run update in early May. They also are allowed 4,400 Willamette-origin spring chinook, but will catch only a small fraction of those before using up their upper Columbia allocation.

Biologist Robin Ehlke of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said about 1,500 total chinook can be caught by the commercials before May without exceeding the 1,200 upper Columbia salmon. The states estimate 80 percent of the run currently are upper Columbia chinook and only 65 percent are fin-clipped hatchery fish.

Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he is hoping the 65 percent hatchery rate will increase, allowing the netters to leverage a few more fish they can sell. Only hatchery fish can be retained, while wild fish must be released.

Biologist John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said if 165 commercial boats fish in the lower Columbia the landing limit would be seven per vessel.

Since some commercials do not like landing limits, if the fleet drops to 150 boats, and if the 65 percent hatchery rate increases, perhaps as many as nine chinook per boat could be kept, North said.

Ehlke said 14 of the 25 chinook caught in Sunday's test fishing came from the western end of Wahkiakum County. It appears the run might slowly be building with most of the chinook downstream of the Longview-Portland area.

The Columbia is low and clear this spring, factors that do not help commercial fishermen.

Whenever the commercials fish, it's going to be a lean year, said Les Clark of Chinook, head of the Northwest Gillnetters Association.

"It's going to be small potatoes, at best,'' Clark said.

The states will meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday to decide whether to extend the sport season in the lower Columbia. Angling is scheduled to be closed beginning Saturday, but catches are far below expectations.