From: Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Published April 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Salmon Fishing Halted on Columbia River Amid Concern about Chinook Population

PORTLAND, Ore. — An agency that regulates the West Coast's biggest river has halted sport and commercial fishing for three kinds of fish after scientists became alarmed about a mysterious collapse in the population of salmon.


The Columbia River Compact voted Tuesday to shut down sport fishing for salmon, steelhead trout and shad to avoid losing too many salmon that are preparing to spawn. Officials also suspended commercial fishing on selective stocks of hatchery fish.


The Columbia River and its tributaries in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana have historically been the world's largest producer of chinook, the biggest of the Pacific salmon species.


Scientists had predicted that more than 200,000 chinook salmon would return to the Bonneville Dam east of Portland. But as of Tuesday, only 2,030 had shown up.


"There were a lot of people ... they kind of declared the salmon crisis over," said Buzz Ramsey, a salmon fishing expert who works for a fishing tackle manufacturer. "But that's not the case at all."


Governments have spent billions of dollars to rebuild the population after overfishing, logging, agriculture and development decimated salmon, placing a dozen species on lists of threatened and endangered fish.


Scientists have been unable to explain why so few fish returned this spring.


They have reviewed several theories, such as sea lions eating the salmon or large numbers of smolts dying on the spring migration to the ocean.


But for each theory, there is conflicting information that shows other rivers with the same hazards have normal salmon populations.


"Maybe it's just a little bit of everything adding up," said Bill Tweit, the state's representative on the Columbia River Compact.


The ban is tough on the river's 200 commercial fishermen.


"We don't want to catch the last fish," Bruce Jolma said. "If there is a conservation problem, we are the first ones who want to sit on the beach."


Sport fishing feeds the economies of small towns along the river, as well as tackle makers. Normally, spring chinook attract thousands of anglers who spend an estimated $21.3 million on everything from potato chips to fishing rods.


Ramsey, who speaks and writes about salmon fishing, was disappointed he would not be able to take his sons fishing until the ban is lifted.


"There are other fishing opportunities, I know," he said. "But there are nothing like these Columbia River spring chinook."


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