The steelhead count at Bonneville Dam was 244 percent above the average, with 50,711 hatchery-raised and 22,497 wild steelhead.
NORTH BONNEVILLE, Wash. — The numbers of salmon and steelhead heading up the Columbia River are well above average, including a record run of sockeye, biologists say.
Officials at NOAA Fisheries tell the Tri-City Herald that the chinook run as of Tuesday was 326,176, or 140 percent above the 10-year average, while the sockeye run of 353,044 fish is a record. They credit favorable ocean conditions, improvement in habitat and hatchery practices, and work to improve fish passage at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The steelhead count at Bonneville Dam was 244 percent above the average, with 50,711 hatchery-raised and 22,497 wild steelhead. And biologists say returns of wild and hatchery salmon and steelhead appear promising for next year and beyond.
"The overall pattern looks good," said John Ferguson, director of the fish ecology division at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "Our ocean survey is just one indicator, and we caught a lot of (juvenile) fish. So overall we are looking for average to better than average returns in the future."
NOAA Fisheries and managers of other federal agencies involved in the recovery of the 12 species of wild salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Columbia River Basin say they are encouraged by this year's run, which follows two strong years.
Sockeye numbers have dwarfed expectations. The 10-year average at Bonneville, where counts have been made since 1938, is 87,675, and the previous record for a year was 237,748 in 1955.
"Huge. It's amazing," said Rock Peters, fish program manager for the Northwest Division of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Most of the run is headed to the upper Columbia River. Nearly all the Columbia River sockeye, which are not listed, come from Canada's Osoyoos Lake.
But biologists expect at least 1,400 listed Snake River sockeye to reach Lower Granite Dam, and the Idaho Fish and Game Department predicts at least 1,000 will return to spawn in Idaho's Stanley Basin, Ferguson said.
Idaho and federal agencies are raising and releasing 140,000 sockeye smolts annually. Even more are expected to be raised under a three-year federal plan to protect and restore endangered Columbia and Snake fish.
"They have gone from the brink of extinction. The captive brood stock program helped keep them from going extinct," Ferguson said. "So hopefully they are stabilizing and trending toward recovery in the Snake River."
Officials say sockeye and other salmon and steelhead have benefited from habitat improvements in tributaries where fish spawn, and improvements at dams that include installing removable spillway weirs. Good biological and physical conditions in the Pacific Ocean in the past few years also have been pivotal to increases in returning adults.
"There are a couple of good years of ocean conditions that are coming into play," Ferguson said.
Unexpectedly persistent rainfall throughout the Northwest in May and June delayed the melting of snow from a light winter snowpack and filled reservoirs, leading to increased spills over dams that benefited fish, officials said.