By Eric Barker

The Lewiston Morning Tribune

LEWISTON, Idaho — A massive fall chinook run predicted to return to the Columbia River and its tributaries later this year could lead to a wild change in fishing regulations.

But first, just how big will the run be?

Regional salmon managers from state, tribal and federal agencies say more than 1.6 million fall chinook will nose into the Columbia River, which would shatter a record set just last year. Nearly 1 million of those will be upriver brights, fish that are bound for areas upstream of Bonneville Dam.

Most of the upriver fish will return to the mid-Columbia River near its Hanford Reach. But enough of them will be headed to Idaho’s Snake River upstream of Lower Granite Dam that Idaho Fish and Game officials are asking their federal counterparts for a permit allowing anglers to keep not only hatchery fish but also some wild fall chinook that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

“We are working with (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries to allow some level of wild take,” said Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for Fish and Game at Lewiston.

Ironically, the idea behind the proposal is to allow anglers to keep more hatchery fish. A large percentage, just more than half of the hatchery fall chinook juveniles released in the Snake River basin each year, do not have their adipose fins removed. Fin removal marks the fish as being born in hatcheries and anglers are generally allowed to keep those with clipped fins but must return unclipped fish.

Some hatchery salmon and steelhead are intentionally left unmarked so they can escape fisheries and spawn in the wild where it is hoped they will boost wild fish numbers. That is the case in the Snake River where the Nez Perce Tribe has played the lead role in fall chinook recovery.

Becky Johnson, director of fish production for the tribe, said Nez Perce policy makers haven’t taken a stand on the state’s proposal but “from a technical perspective we don’t have a concern.”

Returns of fall chinook have been on a steady upward climb during the past few years. But marking rates won’t be renewed until 2017.

As it stands under the current agreement, only about 25 percent of the hatchery fall chinook released in the Clearwater River are marked and about 60 percent of hatchery fall chinook released in the Snake River are fin clipped. In total, just 46 percent of hatchery fall chinook in the Snake River are marked. So during the fall salmon season, anglers end up having to release many chinook they would otherwise be allowed to keep. Johnson said last year an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the more than 55,000 adult fall chinook that returned past Lower Granite Dam were natural, or wild, fish.

Idaho’s proposal in its early stages is complicated and potentially controversial. If anglers are allowed to keep unmarked fish, some of those that end up on barbecues and in smokers would surely be protected wild fall chinook. Taxpayers have spent billions of dollars over the past two decades trying to save threatened and endangered salmon runs in the Columbia Basin.

But the huge run predicted to return this fall makes it possible to at least consider the idea, said Charlie Petrosky, a fisheries biologist for the department at Boise.

“At high enough abundances, it is something that is doable and is consistent with conservation needs,” he said.

But it is far from certain. Petrosky said the department is discussing the proposal with federal fisheries managers, as well as those from other states, the Nez Perce and other tribes.

If it does happen, DuPont said there is a better chance Idaho could see new state record fall chinook. He noted some anglers have caught and had to release some huge fish over the past few fall chinook seasons. Some of them may have approached the 54-pound record fish caught from the Salmon River in 1954. “It would be pretty exciting to have the opportunity to break the state record,” he said.