A season of idle reels Fish managers consider drastic solutions for a dismal spring run of record-low fish

By CHRISTIAN KNIGHT

News staff writer

April 19

John Ardeleann's three fishing lines have been submerged here in the Columbia below Bonneville Dam since 7 a.m. – five hours now.

And so far on this April 14 afternoon, they've combined to snag nothing.

“Nothing,” Ardeleann repeats in a thick Romanian accent. “It might have something to do with the sea lions.”

Two hundred yards beyond where Ardeleann's three wires sink into the green current off Robbin's Island, a sea lion is taunting Ardeleann. He's tossing a fish as if it were a green salad, churning the water around him white with oxygen.

“They should shoot 'em,” he says. “Shoot two of them. Then they'll swim back and tell the others in the ocean not to come and to stay away from here. Stay where they belong. But, you see, they're smart. It's like they know there's some law that will protect them from that.”

Fish managers didn't shoot the sea lions but they did aim shrieking bottlerockets in their direction. And it seems to be doing something.

Bonneville Dam reported encouraging fish numbers Tuesday for the first time in what has been a disappointing spring season.

Forty-six steelhead and 470 Chinook passed over Bonneville Dam Monday, doubling the number of Chinook that have passed over all year.

The recent surge in fish passage was not enough, however, to cancel a teleconference between Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife and representatives from NOAA Fisheries and tribal fisheries.

Those agencies, along with media members and fishermen, discussed the future of the spring sport fishing season.

The options they discussed ranged from closures of sport fishing areas to a premature end to the spring sport fishing season.

The outcome of the meeting was not available at press time.

“It's (fish count) going up but it's going up from zero,” said Jimmy Watts, Columbia River sports fisheries assistant project leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I don't think that will have any bearing on the total fish count.”

Up until April 14, fish count for this year to date was barely a fraction of what it was this time last year. As of April 14, just 200 Chinook and 538 Steelhead had swum above the dam, compared to 14,132 Chinook and 3,587 Steelhead last year.

So far, anglers have caught and kept 8,000 fish, when a year ago, they caught 24,000.

“It's lagging pretty substantially,” Watts said.

The 20 or so sea lions feasting here, however, might not be the only culprits. Ben Hausmann, project biologist for Bonneville Dam, said dam biologists last year estimated that sea lions had eaten just two percent of the total spring run. And, he says, they certainly aren't responsible for this spring's dismal numbers.

It could be the cold water or the warm winter.

“My guess is that it's just a late run,” Hausmann said.

Fish experts had in pre-season predicted 254,000 fish would pass over Bonneville during this spring run. At least 40,640 – 16 percent – should have passed by now. Watts said usually by April 25, 50 percent of the total run has passed over Bonneville Dam. A late run this year could mean that peak won't occur until late May.

But Watts isn't so sure about the late run mainly because high, cold and muddy water is what impedes a run.

“It's low, clear and cold,” Watts said. “There's some speculation that the marine mammals might be affecting passage, the ones in the ladder. The counts have picked up (since fish managers harassed them).”

Should a fishing closure occur, it would help managers protect chinook and steelhead from higher-than-normal impacts of unintended fish deaths as a result of handling and releasing.

The Endangered Species Act allows non-Indian fishermen to kill up to two percent of a run by handling and releasing.

Managers will also consider these possible solutions:

* Eliminate the fishery between Rooster Rock and Bonneville Dam.

* Reduce the fishery below the Rooster Rock boundary to fewer than seven days a week.

* Eliminate the fishery below Rooster Rock.

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