This year, returns of Chinook salmon into their natal Northwest streams have been dismally low. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife canceled recreational and commercial fishing in the lower Columbia River, many coastal streams, and in virtually all of the Snake River and eastern Oregon.
But although the return outlook remains guarded, and the season is still closed, more Chinook than expected have returned to the Lostine and Wallowa Rivers, said Nez Perce Fisheries biologist Ryan Rumelhart. Along with Nez Perce Fisheries technician Dominic Higheagle, he has been tagging the big fish and tracking their migration up the Lostine to locate their redds.
“There are about 300 fish in the Wallowa and Lostine Rivers now,” Rumelhart said. “Not many are wild fish. But overall the returns here are good—better than we expected. And the fish are in good condition. Because the fishing season was closed downriver, they did not have to endure getting caught and injured, or dealing with nets.” So far, the Chinook have not started to spawn. And that has seen no pre-spawning mortality.
The influx of late snow melt also means that local streams are running higher and cooler than in the last few years, Rumelhart noted. That has also helped the fish migrate more easily and stay healthy.
Wallowa County’s returning Chinook salmon usually appear in two distinct groups—one in late July to early August and another in late August. Rumelhart is concerned that this year the second wave may not be coming. “The fish just appeared suddenly, and the run is not tapering off like it usually does,” he said. “It seems as though everybody is coming upstream while conditions are good, instead of holding lower down.”
Chinook numbers in the Lostine River had been in a precipitous decline. In 1974, more than 140 redds were counted in the Lostine. In 1995 there were only 11. With the help of the Nez Perce’s Chinook supplementation program at Looking Glass Hatchery, which releases its smolts into the Lostine River, about 500 Chinook returned to the Lostine in 2009, and an estimated 3,000 Chinook made it back in 2010. Last year’s returns were somewhat lower, according to Rumelhart.
Ocean conditions are a major reason for last year and this year’s region-wide low returns of Chinook. NOAA Fisheries data indicate that deep water temperatures as well as food resources have led to poor survival rates for juvenile fish. Low stream flows and high temperatures exacerbated these problems last year, and in many locations this season. Chinook numbers have been in precipitous decline since a spike in their numbers in 2012.
The 2019 returns may temporarily reverse this trend. Although the first Chinook to appear this season were relatively small – less than 700mm or a little more than 2 feet long—now larger fish, up to 3 feet in length, are migrating upstream. But don’t get your fishing pole out. The Chinook season in the Lostine river and elsewhere is closed. “We actually had a season that allowed for catch of either three hatchery fish or just one wild fish,” Rumelhart said. “A couple of days into the season, that one wild fish was caught. And so we just shut down fishing right then and there.”