Sockeye fishing closure considered as half of Upper Columbia’s run apparently dies in warm waters

JULY 24, 2015

By Rich Landers

UPDATE, 2:20 p.m.:  Sockeye closure has been announced starting Sunday, July 26, a half our after sunset  upper Columbia from Rocky Reach Dam upstream to Chief Joseph Dam.  More details coming.

FISHING — Despite an early facade of excellent sockeye fishing success, the third-largest run on record is in dire straits and Washington fish managers are considering a possible early closure of the prized season in the upper Columbia River.

About half the sockeye run appears to have perished in the low flows and warm water conditions they’ve endured this year in their taxing migration up the Columbia toward spawning areas, says Jeff Korth, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional fisheries manager based in Ephrata.

State fish managers have not responded so far today regarding the status of the proposal.

Oregon and Washington have both enacted emergency fishing rules for some waters that might help fisheries to some degree in this freak year of low snowpack and early runoff that’s ravaged the region’s summer river flows.

Sturgeon fishing was closed this month after dozens if not hundreds of the decades-old giants were found dead in mid-Columbia reservoirs. The sturgeon were stuffed with sockeye and at least some of those sockeye were suffering from bacterial infections promoted by the warm waters.

In early July, biologists were already trying to figure out why 200,000 of the sockeye counted over Bonneville Dam did not make it upstream with their peers to swim over McNary Dam.

  • To date, 503,000 sockeye have been counted swimming over Bonneville, the first dam they encounter on the Columbia on their migration from the ocean.  About 270,000 have been counted over McNary as they enter the upper Columbia at the Tri-Cities.

Last week, government fish scientists monitoring the Columbia, Snake and Southwest British Columbia sockeye returns began coming up with enough evidence to describe the situation among themselves in terms such as “catastrophic.”

Columbia water temperatures have started to tick downward a degree or two and may continue in cooler weather forecast through this weekend. Whether that’s enough change to enable more sockeye to survive remains to be seen.

Korth said the forecast weatehr isn’t going to be enough. “We desperately need the cooler weather,” he said in an email, “but it’s to get the remaining fish up the Okanogan River and through Osoyoos Lake.”

Idaho began trucking some of its endangered Snake River sockeye upstream to hatcheries in hopes of saving enough broodstock to continue a run they’ve had encouraging results in rebuilding from virtually nothing.

The salmon seasons attract thousands of anglers to the Columbia system rivers. A closure would be a huge blow to local economies in towns such as Brewster.

Summer chinook, which are moving up the Columbia in record numbers, apparently are not suffering so much in the warm flows and there’s been no discussion of closing chinook fishing.

But the sockeye run is hurting and future sockeye runs may be in jeopardy, Korth said.

On July 1, Korth had a gut feeling things could get bad as I interviewed him for a story about the upper Columbia salmon season opener, which produced very good success rates.

“More than three salmon per angler is darned good opening-day fishing,” Korth said. But he couldn’t ignore the other numbers on his radar.

Even then, the sockeye were stalled below the mouth of the Okanogan River, which was far above mean temperatures and well above the 72-degree threshold that prevents the fish from continuing their run. Normally the fish rush when they can uptream to the deep, cool waters in Canada’s Osoyoos Lake where they hunker until conditions are right for them to spawn.

This week, Columbia River water out of Wells Dam below Brewster was a livable 65 degrees for sockeye (71 at Bonneville).  However, Okanogan River temps were as high as 84 degrees.

“We had 15,000 (sockeye) try to make the run up (the Okanogan) the other day and they all died,” Korth says in a story Thursday about the proposed closure by Northwest Sportsman editor Andy Walgamott.

Korth knew anglers would do well in catching the sockeye stacking up below the Okanogan and looking for a cool place to go.

“It’s going to be a dicey year for managing that stock – but a good year for fishing,” he said.

Now he’s wondering how fish managers can assure that enough sockeye survive disease and fishermen to make it upstream to spawn and continue the run for the future.

Korth, who says he’s waiting today for a response from fisheries officials in Olympia, explained to Northwest Sportsman:

  • With the hot water providing ideal conditions for culimnaris bacteria to thrive, a fish’s wounds from scraping on rocks and fish ladders are quickly infected, leading to lesions.
  • Migrating salmon need more oxygen because of the high metabolic rate needed to swim against currents, but warm waters tend to have less dissolved oxygen.
  • Lake Wenatchee sockeye may not even meet escapement goals, much less return in numbers high enough for a fishing season, which had been scheduled to open last weekend. Korth believes half of the Lake Wenatchee run has died, too. Fewer than 12,000 of the 106,000 forecast have returned so far over Tumwater Dam.
  • Half of the sockeye in the Brewster pool are likely to die instead of reaching Canada’s Okanagan and tributaries to spawn in September and October.
  • Upper Columbia salmon anglers so far have caught around 20,000 sockeye during a fishery that’s been described as “nothing short of fantastic.”  (Anglers caught about 40,000 during the entire 2014 season.)

“I just hope it’s not too much,” Korth told Walgamott. “Just a couple months ago we were all rejoicing because of the (salmon) forecasts.” 

Korth says he’s proposed closing the Upper Columbia for sockeye, but a final decision is up to state fishery managers in Olympia.

They have not responded to queries this morning.

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