Officials eye improving fall chinook runs

LEWISTON, Idaho — Officials at the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working on a long-range plan that could lead to delisting fall chinook in the Snake River.

The Lewiston Tribune reported that officials for the first time are setting down precise standards that must be met for the fish to be taken off the endangered species list.

But officials say it’s a long process with many hurdles.

“We are running some scenarios trying to get a sense of timing of when there could be delisting,” said Elizabeth Gaar, senior policy adviser for NOAA Fisheries at Portland.

The decision will take into account wild fish abundance as well as their distribution, genetic diversity and distribution.

Officials are predicting more than 47,000 fall chinook could return past Lower Granite Dam this year, and that more than 34,000 of those could be wild fish.

Billy Connor, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wild Service, said cooperation among several states, federal agencies, the Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Power in such areas as habitat work and dam passage are part of the reason for the increase in fall chinook.

He also says healthy ocean conditions could be playing a role.

“We have incredible cooperation within our extended family,” he said. “It’s all coming together and it’s important to recognize the work done in hatcheries and harvest, and improvements in passage, and climate conditions have been in our favor. It’s a fascinating story. I think it’s pretty safe at this point to call it a success story.”

Officials in Idaho are even seeking permission to allow anglers to keep wild fish. Typically, wild fish must be released unharmed to make sure they produce offspring.

Glen Mendel, district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Dayton, said many fisheries managers want to see how many fall chinook return when ocean conditions aren’t as favorable.

“It’s really nice to see this big bump right now, but if ocean conditions turn poor again we may see a substantial decline,” he said. “We are going to have to wait and see and get more years of information.”

Becky Johnson, director of fish production for the Nez Perce Tribe, said hatchery fish have been released from a number of sites with the goal of having them spawn in the wild.

“It’s not just a concrete to concrete program,” said Johnson. “We release fish in the habitat throughout the basin, so when they come back, if they are not caught, they spawn in nature.”

She said that on some fall chinook spawning grounds, 70 percent of the fish have been hatchery fish.

But the number of wild fish will be a key factor when it comes to removing fall chinook from protected status.

“There is a high proportion of hatchery-origin fish right now,” Gaar said. “Over the last 10 years, on average, the hatchery-origin returns have made up over 70 percent of fall chinook that pass on to natural spawning reaches. It’s hard to truly evaluate how the wild population is doing. Is it really increasing if most of the fish are coming from a hatchery?”

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