Columbia River tribes protest nontribal fishing of spring chinook

Portland, Oregon (AP) 5-09

Representatives of Columbia River tribes say Oregon and Washington have allowed too much nontribal fishing of upper Columbia spring chinook at the probable expense of tribes depending on what may be an unexpectedly low run.

The Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes, sent a letter to the states during late April.

So far, tribal fishermen above Bonneville Dam have caught about 1,000 spring chinook, while nontribal fisheries have caught about 19,000, according to the letter from N. Kathryn Brigham, the group’s chairwoman. The numbers are supposed to be about equal, The Oregonian reported.

Spring chinook, the river’s most valuable fish pound for pound, are important to the tribes diet, ceremonies and commercial harvest as well as to sportfishermen and nontribal commercial fishermen.

And the wild runs of spring chinook that originate in the upper Columbia and Snake rivers are among the more endangered.

Fishery managers projected a near-record run of 300,000 upriver spring chinook this year, about a quarter wild fish and three quarters hatchery. But so far, only 22,000 have reached Bonneville Dam, about half the total at the same time last year, when the run totaled slightly fewer than 180,000 by the end of the season in June.

Brigham called the situation unacceptable, noting that an overly optimistic forecast last year also left the tribes short on fish. The states’ decision to allow additional sportfishing despite obviously low returns showed apparent disregard for risk management, she wrote.

“It is evident that the states have chosen to reverse the burden of proof by requiring proof that the preseason forecast is not accurate, rather than verifying with in-season evidence that it is,” Brigham said.

If the states and the tribes can’t agree on changes under the federal court case that covers fishing allocations, she said, the tribes will seek remedy in the courts.

Sportfishing on the Columbia below Bonneville Dam is now closed.

Steve Williams, deputy fish administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he hopes higher returns in May and June but doubts the sportfishing season will be reopened given the low runs to date.

“It’s obviously a very late-timed run,” he said. “I have told people not to anticipate any reopening.”

In an earlier letter to the tribes, the heads of Oregon and Washington’s fish and wildlife agencies said they were conservative in how much fishing they allowed.

Under the states’ management plan, the 2009 run would need to fall below 156,000 fish, about half the original projection, for nontribal fisheries to exceed Endangered Species Act percentage limits on their catch of wild fish, they said.

Williams said he understands tribal concerns but defended the states’ management.

“We took a very conservative approach, more conservative this year than we have ever taken,” Williams said. “Should we do something different next year? Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about that.”