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Thursday, April 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:19 AM

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Salmon failing to show up

The Associated Press

PORTLAND — For the second straight year, the spring chinook salmon that normally leap by the thousands up the fish ladders of Bonneville Dam toward spawning grounds are virtually absent.

Fishery experts say the run has been late before, but it's off to such a weak start that a Columbia River Indian tribe had to haul some of last year's salmon out of the freezer last weekend for its traditional "First Foods" ceremony that marks the return of the fish.

As of Tuesday, 135 adult chinook had been counted at the dam. The 10-year average at this point, which includes a couple of bumper years, is about 19,000. The tribal share of this spring run has been calculated at 6,188 fish.

As of last weekend's ceremony at Celilo Village near The Dalles, tribal fishermen had caught about 20.

The 140 miles of river below the dam will close to salmon, steelhead and shad fishing effective Friday. It could reopen if more fish pass the dam.

"There are ups and downs in the fish world," said Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Last year was one of the latest runs we'd seen and this year is shaping up that way."

She said a late surge remains possible and more should be known in late April, when about half of the run normally would have passed the dam.

Preseason estimates for last year were for 254,100 salmon to make it past Bonneville Dam. Only 106,900 did so.

This year's prediction is 88,400, a fairly healthy run if the fish show up. In recent years, the run has been as low 42,000 in 1999 and as high as 438,000 in 2001.

Data from the count are used to predict future runs and have been fairly accurate until last year.

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"Scientists are taking into account ocean temperatures and conditions, sea lions, ocean fishing and outmigrating conditions," said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

"It still doesn't make up for the gap" between last year's predictions and actual returns.

He said tribes worry a return to the days of persistently low runs will eliminate ceremonial and subsistence fishing.

Federally protected sea lions, which gather in increasing numbers at the base of the dam to snag salmon as they mass at the fish ladders, take an estimated 3.5 percent of the run and are blamed by many.

There is a move to seek permission to shoot the worst offenders, some of whom return year after year.

But Hudson said that has to be kept in perspective. "Spring chinook for the last 40 years have been in deep, deep distress," he said.

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