Let’s get the absurdly large number out of the way first.
Plugging 2009’s off-the-charts jack return past Bonneville Dam into the standard run-prediction model, anywhere from 1 million to 1.5 million adult spring Chinook could begin returning to the Columbia in the next few months.
Yeah, up to 1.5 million of the best-tasting fish in the solar system, all holding at some point in the Interstate hole.
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More upriver springers than have entered the big river in all the runs since 2002. And nearly four times as many as came back in 2001, the all-time record back to when they slapped all that concrete and steel across the Columbia on the eve of WWII.
Only problem is, the mathematical inputs to get a million-springer march are seriously suspect.
“I don’t think we’ll be predicting that, but I don’t know,” says Cindy LeFleur. “That’s just my personal opinion.”
Mike Matylewich is somewhat more certain: “I wouldn’t have a lot of confidence with that forecast.”
And Stuart Ellis is around 100 percent positive: “Nobody’s going out on a limb to say a record return, but we should see a pretty good run. But the crux is, what’s a pretty good run?”
LeFleur represents Washington on a panel of Columbia River fishery managers and biologists headed up by Ellis. It also includes the states of Oregon and Idaho, five Northwest tribal groups – repped by Ellis and Matylewich’s Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission – and three federal agencies, NMFS, USFWS and BIA.
A mil-plus springers is so stupendous that they’re all taking a much longer, harder look than usual at all the dam- and hatchery-count data, ocean conditions and what’s going on with other runs to figure out the 2010 preseason prediction. In the buildup to the expected Dec. 11 release, there has been “lots of meetings and lots of discussion about the causal factors to those high jack numbers and what to do about it,” says Ellis.
NEVER IN THE HISTORY of all jackdom have so many run up the Columbia as this year – 81,782 through June 15, the last day Chinook passing Bonneville are officially counted as springers. It pulverizes the old record, 24,363, set in 2000, which led to the biggest run since at least 1938, 439,895. And it begs the question, Why did all those so-called precocious, ready-to-breed 3-year-old salmon come back early to their tribs everywhere from Stevenson and Winthrop, Wash., to Orofino, Idaho, to Enterprise, Ore.?
Managers say they just don’t know.
According to Ellis, early speculation about what might have caused that “high jacking rate” included theories that some hatcheries were feeding their smolts richer fish chow or inriver conditions helped them get to the ocean quicker (the faster fish grow, the quicker they sexually mature, the more likely they are to jack). Another discounted suggestion was that they were just smaller than usual adults.
“What that kind of leaves is something going on in the ocean,” Ellis says.
Unlike fall Chinook which turn up in commercial catches out in the North Pacific and give some idea of where they roam, after just three or four months at sea, the biologists lose all sign of the prized spring salmon.
“We don’t know where they are, don’t know the factors affecting their survival,” says Ellis.
CLEARLY, COLD OCEAN TEMPS were a good thing for all Columbia stocks in ’09. But with springer returns the last five years coming in anywhere from 42 to 149 percent of forecast, and later and later too, there are now questions about whether the high numbers of jacks last April, May and June mean great survival for the entire year class of springers that went to sea in 2008, or just the jacks themselves.
“They may not mean much of anything for the adult run,” Ellis suggests.
And that’s a problem because managers generally use one year’s return of jacks and jills (3-year-old hens) to predict how many of their older brethren will return the following season, which in turn is important for fishermen.
If there are a lot of jacks, there should be a lot of adults and thus liberal bag limits; if there aren’t, there probably won’t be a big run and tighter rules govern.
Last year, 22,352 jacks came through Bonneville, roughly a quarter of this year’s return, and produced an adult run forecast just shy of 300,000, so ipso facto, 4 times 300,000 is …
Ellis was among a group whose “back of the envelope” jottings came up with a run size of 1 million to 1.5 million. But he says that it’s “unreasonable” to expect even a doubling of 2001’s record run.
So instead he and others are trying to figure out how to somehow “scale” the jack return to come up with a prediction.
“But what’s appropriate?” he asks. “We don’t know. We haven’t done this before.”
The only thing riding on it are, oh, say, impact limits to protect Endangered Species Act-listed wild spring Chinook which in turn dictate sport, tribal and commercial fisheries.
But far from giving Ellis a headache it’s part of what keeps him coming into the office and diving into data and the strange, strange ways of salmon.
“The fish are kinda doing their own thing. It’s a constant game to figure out what they’re doing, what’s affecting their survival and trying to nail it down,” he says. “These fish don’t let go of their mysteries as easily as we’d like them to.”
And while the mystery of how many may come in next year will begin to be unraveled this month, we won’t know for sure how accurate that guess is until next summer, when the run actually finishes up.
In the meanwhile, what should you and I expect?
“Be flexible in your fishing plans,” Ellis suggests. “We may see a whole lot more, or a whole lot less than we announce in December.”