Should sportsmen be allowed to keep at least some wild summer chinook — especially given the relative scarcity of marked salmon — in the lower Columbia River?
Members of the bi-state Columbia River Recreational Advisor Group were well split when the group discussed the topic in mid-January.
Anglers in the lower Columbia River have been required to release unmarked chinook for several years in the summer season, which is June 16 through July 31.
But there’s been a growing disgruntlement with the hatchery-only regulation, particularly when just 39 percent of the summer chinook were fin-clipped in 2014.
Summer chinook salmon are destined for the Columbia River upstream of Priest Rapids Dam. They are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The fish are a mix of hatchery-origin salmon plus wild fish that spawn in rivers including the Wenatchee, Methow and Okanogan. The new Chief Joseph Hatchery in Bridgeport, Wash., is coming online, too.
A run of 73,000 summer chinook is forecast to enter the Columbia in 2015, said Robin Ehlke, assistant Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
She also said the 39 percent mark rate was low and a rate of about 60 percent is more typical.
Under state management plans, harvest sharing with the Columbia River treaty tribes and sharing with non-treaty tribes, sportsmen in the Columbia downstream of Bonneville Dam will have 3,315 summer chinook available, Ehlke said. That includes kept catch and wild fish that die in the process of being released.
Washington and Oregon biologists have modeled some scenarios where wild summer chinook are allowed to be retained.
Assuming the regulation in 2015 is clipped summer chinook only, and the mark rate is 50 percent, fishing could stay open the entire 46 days between June 16 and July 31, said John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
If any summer chinook could be kept in 2015, 12 days of fishing from June 16 through 27 are possible before the allocation is used. If anglers are allowed only marked chinook in June, but any summer chinook in July, the allocation is used up on July 10, for a 25-day season.
Jack Glass, a Troutdale, Ore., guide, said 46 days of hatchery-only fishing is preferable to 12 days of any-chinook angling.
“That’s a no-brainer,” he said.
Glass also mentioned the need for regulatory stability, and not having retention opening, closing and reopening.
“This red-light, green-light thing is hard to work with,” Glass said, who added he heard of three 50-pound hatchery-origin summer chinook being caught in 2014.
Advisory group member Robert Moxley of Dundee, Ore., disagreed with Glass.
Moxley noted that in 2014 sportsmen in the lower Columbia caught only 72 percent of their allocation of summer chinook under the hatchery-fish-only regulation.
“Why are we leaving non-ESA-listed fish on the table,” he asked. “People are leaving the fishery. Retention is a big deal.”
Moxley said he realizes guides need lengthy seasons in order to sell fishing trips.
“It’s not just about days on the water,” he said. “It’s about opportunity.”
Advisory group member Kevin Kuhel of Milwaukie, Ore., said he favored keeping any summer chinook even if it shortens the season.
By late June, water temperature in the Columbia rises and the July bite is not good, said Kuhel.
Gillnetters and tribal fishermen catch and keep any chinook, yet sportsmen are limited to only fin-clipped summer fish, he said.
“It discriminates against us,” Kuhel said.
Advisory group member Harry Barber of Washougal said the mark rate over the past five years has averaged closer to 60 percent. He also said some of the streams in north-central Washington have too high of a percentage of hatchery summer chinook on the spawning grounds.
Barber favored keeping the fin-clip requirement, but acknowledged the complexity of the issue.
“It’s not an easy problem,” Barber said. “I favor a conservation orientation.”
Additional talks about summer chinook will occur in the salmon fishing planning process known as North of Falcon in March and early April. State officials typically announce the regulations in April.