Belated spring chinook run exceeds last year’s numbers

PORTLAND, Ore. – For a while, it looked like the Columbia River’s spring chinook salmon run might give 2006 a miss. Fishing seasons were curtailed and tribal fisheries were reduced as fish biologists waited – and waited – for the fish to arrive at Bonneville Dam.

But then the fish arrived – in bigger numbers than last year.

When the counting season closed on Wednesday nearly 124,000 chinook had passed the dam, more than the 88,000 expected and more than last year’s return of 95,000.

“This year’s spring run took its time but it crossed the finish line with a very respectable showing,” said Bob Lohn, head of the Northwest region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations fisheries service. “The long-term average continues to rise.”

While the run usually peaks in mid-April, the salmon did not even begin arriving at Bonneville Dam in significant numbers until the first week of May.

By mid-April, only 135 adult chinook had been counted at the dam. The 10-year average at that point, which includes a couple of bumper years, is about 19,000.

It was the second year in a row the run was tardy. Nobody is sure why or what finally sent them on their way upriver.

Lohn credited improvements in fish passage facilities at the dams, hatchery and harvest management and better fish habitat for the eventual healthy return.

Fish biologists considered a number of possible causes for the delay, including ocean conditions and hordes of hungry sea lions who camp out in the river just below the dam, seeking an easy snack.

Bonneville, about 45 miles upriver from Portland and some 150 river miles from the Pacific Ocean, is the first of many dams the fish must navigate as they return to spawn.

Some of the sea lion exclusion devices that keep the mammals from getting into the fish ladders were removed temporarily to see if fish passage improved, but biologists could detect no real difference.

The devices are meant to keep the sea lions out of the fish ladders the fish use to pass Bonneville and other dams.

By some accounts, the sea lions eat about 3.5 percent of the run as it heads upriver.

WASHINGTON – Two Democratic senators let a fisheries management bill go forward Thursday after Senate leaders agreed to a provision making West Coast salmon fishermen eligible for disaster assistance.

Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Barbara Boxer of California had said they would block a bill reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act until the Senate considered steps to help coastal communities in their states survive a sharply curtailed salmon fishing season.

Magnuson-Stevens is the major law governing fisheries in the United States. A Senate vote was expected as early as Thursday night.

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