Biologists are forecasting the best run of fall chinook salmon to the Columbia River in almost a decade with expectations for a record-high return of bright fish to central Washington.
The forecast, released late last week, predicts a return of 677,900 fall chinook to the Columbia, the highest return since 2004 and significantly larger than the actual return of 512,300 a year ago.
Particularly encouraging is the forecast for a record-high 432,500 “upriver brights,’’ mostly wild-spawning fish produced from the free-flowing Hanford Reach downstream of Priest Rapids Dam near the Tri-Cities.
The highest actual return of upriver brights was 420,700 in 1987. Upriver brights fuel catches at places such as the mouth of the Cowlitz River, Kalama, Vancouver and Government Island.
“Upriver bright chinook have been the foundation of fall salmon stocks since their big comeback in the 1980s,” said Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There are a number of actions that have contributed, including protection of the free-flowing Columbia River in the Hanford Reach, the United States salmon treaty with Canada, and improved dam passage conditions for migrating juveniles.”
Another forecast for a record high is for bright fall chinook returning to the hatcheries of the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day pools of the Columbia River Gorge. The forecast is for 70,000 in 2013.
The actual return in 2012 was 46,300 and the existing high is 67,400 in 2003.
Fall chinook returns to the Columbia are categorized in six different stock groups.
Four of the groups are “bright’’ fish, while two are “tules,’’ which are dark-skinned and generally less desirable in mainstem Columbia sport and commercial fisheries but power Washington ocean and Buoy 10 fisheries where they are brighter.
Here’s a look at the six stocks:
Lower River hatchery — These are tules headed for hatcheries such as Cowlitz, Kalama and Washougal. The forecast is for 88,000, which is similar to the five-year average of 87,000 and the 2012 return of 84,800.
These fish are important because they are used as surrogates in fisheries to determine the strength of wild-spawning chinook in the catches.
Lower river wild — These are bright wild-spawners, mostly in the North Fork of the Lewis River downstream of Merwin Dam, but also in the Sandy and Cowlitz rivers. The forecast is 14,200, equal to the 10-year average and similar to 13,900 of 2012.
Bonneville pool hatchery — Another tule stock, these chinook are headed mostly for Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery in eastern Skamania County. The forecast of 38,000 is about 40 percent of the 10-year average and quite a bit less than the actual return of 56,800 in 2012.
Bonneville upriver brights — These are produced at Bonneville Hatchery on the Oregon side of the Columbia downstream of Bonneville Dam. The forecast is for 35,200, which would be almost triple the 12,400 of 2012 and similar to the average of 39,100.
Pool upriver brights — These are reared at Little White Salmon, Klickitat and Umatilla hatcheries. The forecast, as mentioned above, is 70,000.
Upriver brights — Besides Hanford Reach, these are produced at Priest Rapids and Ringold hatcheries and the Snake River, plus lesser numbers in the Yakima and Deschutes rivers.
Coho — Finally, some good news about Columbia River coho salmon. The biologists predict there will be 501,100 Columbia-origin coho out in the ocean this summer, a much better number than the forecast of 317,200 in 2012 and the bleak actual return of 170,300.
The five-year average is 404,700 coho.
“It’s good news, better than we’ve seen for a while,’’ said Steve Watrous of Vancouver, Washington sport-fishing representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
While it takes 700,000 to 1 million coho to have excellent fishing in August and September at Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia River, a half million coho is a move in the right direction, Watrous said.
The forecast calls for 331,600 early coho and 169,500 late coho.
Early coho enter the Columbia River from mid-August to mid-September and tend to migrate south from the river mouth while in the ocean.
Late coho enter the Columbia from mid-September into late November with the peak in mid-October. They migrate north from the Columbia River.
A large number of early coho normally results in better catches at Buoy 10.