Q&A: Idaho closed its chinook fishing while Washington and Oregon extend theirs, how can that be?

Most people understand why we had to shut down the fishery in Clearwater basin and reduce harvest shares on the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers.  What people don’t understand is how Washington and Oregon were announcing they would extend their Chinook Salmon fishery just when Idaho was closing ours down. The disparity has many people wondering if Idaho even communicates with Washington and Oregon.  This is a very complicated issue that has multiple layers, so please bear with me as I explain why this happened and what could possibly be done about it.

Why do Washington and Oregon get to harvest Chinook Salmon raised in Idaho and destined for Idaho fisheries?

Although we may like to think of salmon and steelhead raised and released in Idaho as “our fish”, it’s important to recognize that none of the anadromous hatcheries in Idaho are funded by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.  All costs associated with these hatcheries (construction, maintenance, operation, salaries) are paid for by federal and private entities to mitigate for losses of salmon and steelhead resulting from the construction of dams.  One of the biggest mitigation programs funding Idaho’s hatcheries is the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan (LSRCP).  This Bonneville Power funded program was developed to mitigate for losses in salmon and steelhead due to the construction of the Snake River dams in Washington.  The mitigation is not just for Idaho fisheries, but for Oregon, Washington and tribal fisheries as well.  One of the goals of the LSRCP is to provide for an annual return of 58,700 spring and summer Chinook Salmon upstream of Lower Granite Dam from the hatcheries they fund. 

Like it or not, fish reared at the LSRCP hatcheries are also intended to increase fishing opportunities in Washington and Oregon commercial, sport, and Tribal fisheries.  In fact, when the LSRCP was developed, it was anticipated that for every one adult Chinook Salmon returning above Lower Granite Dam another four (234,800) would be harvested downstream in commercial and sport catches.  At the time the program was planned, it was anticipated that commercial harvest would make up the majority (75%) of the downstream catch and the sport harvest would be equally distributed above and below Lower Granite Dam.  Since the LSRCP was implemented, Oregon and Washington have chosen to shift much of the commercial harvest over to the sport fishery. 

Idaho Power is also a significant player in mitigating for lost fisheries in Idaho due to the construction of the Hells Canyon Dam complex.  For mitigation, IPC funded construction and operation of four hatcheries that are operated by IDFG.  As with the LSRCP fish, these smolts are raised to make up for lost fishing opportunities both in Idaho and in waters downriver of Idaho.  Unlike the LSRCP, Idaho Power’s mitigation program does not stipulate adult return goals or specify how many fish are anticipated to be harvested in each of the states.

Why are Washington and Oregon extending seasons while Idaho is closing theirs?

Fisheries in the Columbia basin are managed in accordance with the United States vs Oregon Management Agreement.  This management agreement originated from a court case where the United States, on behalf of the Columbia River Tribes, sued Oregon alleging that Oregon was not providing the Tribes a “fair share” of the available harvest.  Judge Belloni ruled in favor of the Tribes and eventually directed the parties to work together to develop a comprehensive plan that addressed harvest of fish in the Columbia Basin.  The states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, the United States, the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, and the Columbia River Treaty Tribes (Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakama tribes) are now all signatories to this management agreement.  For more about the US v OR agreement you can click on this link: US v Oregon Management Agreement.

The U.S. vs Oregon Management Agreement directs how many Chinook Salmon the states and Tribes can harvest in the Columbia and Snake rivers (downstream of Idaho) during the spring management period (January 1 to June 15).  Harvest rates are determined based upon the abundance of Chinook Salmon destined for waters upstream of Bonneville Dam, and ultimately influences how many of the Idaho bound fish that the states of Oregon and Washington and the Columbia River Tribes can harvest.  The larger the run, the higher the percentage of fish that can be harvested in downriver fisheries.

The reason that Washington, Oregon, and the Columbia Tribes were able to reopen/continue their Chinook Salmon fisheries this year just as Idaho closed the Clearwater fishery was because they had not reached the harvest level that is spelled out in the management agreement described above.  It’s also important to recognize the Columbia River fisheries harvest a mixed stock of Chinook Salmon that are destined for hatcheries in the Upper Columbia and tributaries downstream of the Snake River as well as returns to the Snake River.  This year the states and Columbia River Tribes are each allowed to harvest 7% of the upriver runs, which amounts to around 5,000 spring/summer Chinook Salmon.

What does the U.S. vs Oregon Management Agreement say about sharing of harvest between Idaho and downstream fisheries?

The US v Oregon court case was filed to resolve catch imbalance between Oregon fisheries and the Columbia River Tribes not harvest sharing between Idaho and downstream fisheries.  In addition, this management agreement was not designed to manage individual stocks of fish destined for different areas with unique broodstock needs. 

So how many of Idaho’s fish should fisheries downstream of Idaho be able to harvest?

As I indicated earlier, this year the U.S. vs Oregon Management Agreement allows the states and Columbia River Tribes each to harvest 7% (about 5,000 fish) of the upriver runs during this year’s spring management period.  Based on past research, about half the fish harvested in these fisheries are destined for Idaho waters.  That would mean, between the states and Columbia River Tribes, they could potentially harvest 5,000 Idaho bound hatchery Chinook Salmon during the spring management period.

Before I was able to finish this blog, Washington and Oregon closed their sport and commercial fisheries on the Columbia River for the spring management period.  One of the main reasons for this closure was because Idaho and others raised concern that extending their seasons would reduce the number of fish reaching hatcheries throughout the Columbia basin where broodstock shortages were projected to occur.  Prior to the closure, the states harvested 2,372 fish, well short of what the U.S. vs Oregon Management Agreement would have allowed.  If half of the fish that were harvested by the states were bound for Idaho, that would mean they harvested 1,186 Idaho bound fish.  For comparison, Idaho’s non-Tribal fisheries are projected to harvest around 700 fish. 

I’m not going to say whether this is fair or not, but I can tell you the number of Idaho bound fish that will be harvested by all three states this year is not much at all.  Ultimately, in this situation Washington and Oregon worked with Idaho (and others) and recognized that how they managed their fisheries now could influence all of our fisheries in the future.  This is a positive sign and I can tell you that Idaho will continue to have discussions with Washington and Oregon to work on solutions for the future.

I know this is a lot to take in.  It is a lot for me to take in and there is no easy solution.  Obviously, our salmon runs are hugely important to Tribal and non-Tribal people and is why so many court cases have been brought on this issue.  Often times, it is when we experience extremes (in this case extremely low salmon returns) that changes occur.  My hopes are these extremely low returns are what it takes for all concerned parties to work together to find a solution that is fair to all.