Q&A: Changes to fishing seasons on Columbia River tributaries

The spring Chinook salmon fishing season has just begun in the Columbia River, but the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has already announced that several popular tributary fisheries will either be closed or shortened to spring Chinook harvest in 2021.

Drano Lake and the mouth of the Wind River are located less than 10 miles apart on the Washington side of the Columbia River, in Skamania County. Wind River and Drano Lake fisheries face special challenges this year, as hatcheries along those waters prepare to ramp up their broodstock collection even as returns to those tributaries are forecast to be among the lowest in the past 20 years.

As a result, fishery managers have pre-emptively closed fishing on the Wind River and reduced the daily bag and season length in Drano Lake, to help ensure hatcheries can collect the necessary fish in 2021 and improve these fisheries for the future.

How many fish are expected to return to these tributaries?

The entire lower Columbia is expected to see low returns this spring. The 2021 preseason forecast of 75,200 upriver spring Chinook would be the second-lowest return between 2000 and 2020.

The Wind River is expected to see only 1,200 adults return this spring, the lowest on record since 2000, and only about 25 percent of the 10-year average. Drano Lake is expected to see 3,900 adults return, less than half the 10-year average, and the third-lowest return since 2000.

What’s happening with the hatcheries there?

Two hatcheries operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Carson National Fish Hatchery (NFH) and the Little White Salmon NFH, are located along or near the Wind River and Drano Lake, respectively. The Carson NFH, about 15 miles north of the mouth of the Wind River along the Wind River highway, releases about 1.2 million juvenile spring Chinook every year. The Little White Salmon NFH releases about 1 million spring Chinook every year where the Little White Salmon River flows into Drano Lake.

Returns of adult spring Chinook have struggled recently at both facilities, with fewer than 1,000 fish returning to Carson in each of the past two years, and returns to the Little White Salmon NFH have dwindled from more than 7,000 fish in 2015 to fewer than 3,000 fish in both 2019 and 2020.

The fish returning in 2021 will have experienced ocean conditions ranging from fair to poor during their time at sea, which has likely also played a role in the decreased forecast. Low returns to the Columbia River — like those seen in the past few years — can make it difficult for hatcheries throughout the basin to meet their broodstock goals.

Why are these hatcheries increasing production?

Additional hatchery production tentatively planned to begin in 2021 will likely result in increased broodstock collection needs at hatchery facilities above Bonneville Dam. Total brood needs between Carson and Little White Salmon NFH have typically been around 2,350 adults, but the additional production increase may require as many as 1,000 more adults.

These additional hatchery programs are intended to increase sport and tribal fishery harvest of spring Chinook and support recovery of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population, though the results of these efforts may not be realized for several years.

How does modifying these fisheries help meet these goals?

Given the low returns in recent years, and the anticipated increased need for broodstock at these facilities, the fishery changes were necessary to get these facilities as close as possible to meeting their broodstock goals. In simple terms, the fewer fish that are caught at the mouth of these rivers, the more fish that are likely to reach the hatchery to be harvested for broodstock.

Some existing regional hatchery programs have also fallen below egg-take goals in recent years, and Carson and Little White Salmon NFHs have provided additional eggs to supplement those programs. This is more important than ever as these facilities also take on additional production. Targeted closures, reduced limits, and shortened seasons represent the balance between meeting broodstock goals at these hatcheries and providing anglers with some harvest opportunity during a year of limited returns.

The reduced bag limit and earlier closure at Drano Lake, for example, is expected to allow approximately 600 additional fish to return to the hatchery for spawning.

What other rivers are being affected?

In addition to the changes to the Drano Lake and Wind River fisheries, other tributaries seeing reduced limits or closures include the Kalama, Cowlitz, and Klickitat rivers. These fishery reductions are uniformly due to anticipated low returns and the need to meet broodstock goals.

While the forecast suggests improved returns to some rivers — like the Cowlitz — that allowed the mainstem to open this year, those improved returns are still too low to support a targeted fishery at normal levels.

Salmon Creek, meanwhile, will open for hatchery steelhead beginning March 16, due to a biological opinion in the past few years that have shifted steelhead stocks there to a slightly later run timing than in past years.

Be sure to check WDFW’s emergency rules page for the latest updates on these and other fishing opportunities.

Why did WDFW wait until after the Columbia River spring Chinook seasons were announced to change these fisheries?

Because WDFW co-manages the mainstem Columbia River with Oregon and Columbia River treaty tribes, managers first had to agree on dates and locations when the lower river would be open before Washington-specific tributaries could be addressed. In short, the river had to open (or at least have scheduled dates for opening) before these tributaries could be modified.

Because the Columbia River mainstem hosts a variety of different salmon runs, closing or modifying the mainstem fishery is much less effective than these targeted tributary changes that are more likely to positively affect returns at specific hatcheries.

While tributary fisheries management may not see the same levels of coordination characteristic of the mainstem, there is still a great deal of discussion and information exchange that occurs between WDFW, Yakama Nation Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and other partners to develop pres-season fishery plans.

We know it can be frustrating when fisheries are constrained in years of poor adult returns. However, in this case, we expect the increases in hatchery production starting in 2021 will mean additional opportunity for anglers in future years.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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