LEWISTON – Idaho shut down its Clearwater River spring chinook season Wednesday in what has become a near annual exercise in frustration.
It is the second time in as many years and the third time in four years that springer fishing has been scuttled before it began.
Idaho Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever signed an emergency closure order on the two-day-a-week season because of poor numbers of fish returning from the ocean.
Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager for the department at Boise, said the agency’s forecast indicates the number of fish returning to Clearwater River hatcheries will fall shy of spawning goals.
“It’s very clear as of now returns to the Clearwater are not likely to meet broodstock and they are certainly not to the point where there is any harvest share,” he said.
Idaho and the Nez Perce Tribe evenly split the number of hatchery chinook above and beyond what is needed for spawning. The number available to each entity is known as a harvest share.
Fisheries managers braced for another poor return of spring chinook this year, the fourth in a row. The Clearwater run was projected to produce a slim harvest share of about 1,000 fish before the season opened last month. That dwindled to minus-nine by this week.
Outfitter Toby Wyatt, owner of Reel Time Fishing, said he and others will have to cancel the few trips they had on the books because of the closure. Restrictions designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 had already reduced bookings.
Wyatt said the fish need help now. While he supports dam breaching as a long-term solution, other actions that can be implemented much sooner, such as reducing the number of predatory birds and fish, need to be taken.
“We have to start somewhere and right now it feels like we are doing nothing,” he said.
Eric Crawford, the northern Idaho field coordinator for the conservation group Trout Unlimited, said the season shutdown should serve as a wake-up call that the decadeslong efforts to recover the iconic fish are not working.
“I feel really bad for the communities, guides and outfitters on the Clearwater that rely on these runs and the angling dollars they bring in,” Crawford said. “I’m hopeful we can collectively chart a path forward.’ ”
For about 30 years, a debate over the best way to save flagging runs of Snake River chinook, steelhead and sockeye has simmered in the Pacific Northwest. Many fisheries scientists believe breaching the four lower Snake River dams is the best and perhaps only way to recover the fish.
But the dams provide tug-and-barge transportation between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston and produce a modest amount of hydropower that others say is essential to the region’s economy.
The federal government recently chose a nonbreaching course of action as its preferred strategy.
The state’s harvest share for the lower Salmon River and Little Salmon River has dropped to about 550 adult chinook, according to the latest projections by the agency. It had been as high as 1,600 before the season began.
Fishing will continue on the two rivers that meet at Riggins, despite the lower harvest share projection. But Idaho Fish and Game commissioners recently met to consider changes to the season structure.
Right now, fishing is allowed Thursdays through Sundays there. Hebdon said the commission could change it to a two-day-a-week fishery, Saturdays and Sundays, starting next week. The commission may also look at closing some areas within Riggins City limits to reduce concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
This week a group of state, tribal and federal fisheries scientists known as the Technical Advisory Committee declined to officially update its spring chinook run forecast. The group is likely to do so early next week.
The preseason forecast called for a return of 81,700 spring chinook destined for tributaries above Bonneville Dam, which would be the second-lowest run since 1999. Last year’s run was the lowest.
Hebdon said it’s clear the preseason forecast was likely overly optimistic.
“It will be surprising if we make that,” he said.
Nonetheless, fisheries officials in Washington and Oregon extended spring chinook fishing on the Columbia River another four days, Friday through Sunday and Wednesday.
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