Fishing seasons for coho salmon in Puget Sound are expected to
be cut back severely this year, as the latest forecasts of salmon
returns predict that coho runs will be less than a third of what
was forecast for 2015.
Salmon managers faced some tough facts recently when they read
over results from a computer model used to predict the effects of
various fishing scenarios. After they plugged in last year’s
fishing seasons and this year’s coho forecast, the computer told
them that essentially no fish were left to spawn in Stillaguamish
River in northern Puget Sound. Things were hardly better for the
Skagit or Snohomish rivers or for streams in the Strait of Juan de
Fuca and Hood Canal.
“With last year’s fisheries, you will catch every fish out
there,” said Doug Milward, who manages salmon data for the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All the fisheries will
have to change to protect the Stillaguamish (coho) — from the ocean
fisheries to inside (Puget Sound).”
Last year’s fishing seasons are not even a good starting point,
as negotiations begin between salmon managers for the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife and Western Washington tribes.
Under federal court rulings, the two sides must agree on fishing
seasons, and the goal remains a 50-50 split of the various stocks
that can be safely harvested. NOAA Fisheries plays a role in
setting seasons for chinook, which are listed as threatened under
the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not listed, although some
people argue that they should be.
By April 14, if things go as planned, the two parties will reach
agreement on when and where salmon fishing will take place — for
tribal and nontribal, sport and commercial fishers.
“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning
last year than we anticipated,” John Long, salmon fisheries policy
lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “We expect to
see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to
restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect
wild coho stocks.”
It seems the tribes have a slightly different take on the
“There likely will be no coho fisheries in Western Washington
this year, as returns are expected to plummet even further than
last year because of poor ocean survival,” Lorraine Loomis,
chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, stated in
She said that when last year’s coho returns are finally tallied,
they may be as much as 80 percent below preseason forecasts. The
Nisqually Tribe last year canceled its coho fishery when less than
4,000 of the anticipated 23,000 fish returned to the area, she
Tribes fish at the end of the line, after all the other
fisheries — from up the West Coast to the inside of Puget Sound.
Because the treaties require tribes to fish within their “usual and
accustomed areas,” agreements on fishing seasons must allow for
salmon to return to their natal streams with numbers large enough
for tribes to take their share, Lorraine said.
“Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to
feed our families and culture,” she said. “Faced with low catch
rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply
reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state,
however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to
attempt to catch fish that weren’t there. That’s not right. The
last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the
responsibility for conserving the resource.”
The annual negotiations between the state and the tribes were
kicked off Tuesday at a public meeting where the salmon forecasts
were discussed with sport and commercial fishers.
In addition to a poor return of coho to Puget Sound, the
forecast for Puget Sound chinook also shows somewhat lower numbers
than last year.
One bright spot is for people who like to fish in the ocean.
About 951,000 fall chinook are expected to return to the Columbia
River. That’s higher than the 10-year average but lower than last
year’s modern record of 1.3 million. About 223,000 hatchery chinook
are expected to return to the lower Columbia River. These fish,
known as “tules,” make up the bulk of the recreational harvest.
Another bright spot is the prediction of a fair number of
sockeye returning to Baker Lake on the Skagit River, possibly
allowing a fishing season in the lake and river.
Norm Reinhardt, who heads up the Kitsap Poggie Club, has been
involved in advisory groups on salmon fishing and participates in
discussions about the seasons.
“This year, we have a significant challenge in the coho fishery,
and we will have to base decisions on conservation needs,” Norm
told me following Tuesday’s meeting.
Despite lower chinook numbers, there could be ways to work out
some opportunities to fish for hatchery chinook, he said.
Catch-and-release is one option on the table, but it is not popular
among sport fishers.
Anglers are still smarting from last year’s sport-fishing
closure in Area 10, a designated fishing area between Bremerton and
Seattle. Fishing for chinook was prohibited in that area at the
insistence of the Muckleshoot Tribe to protect hatchery chinook
returning to the Issaquah Creek hatchery.
Fishing should have been allowed at some level — with the
release of wild chinook — under an agreed management plan, Norm
says, but state managers yielded to the tribe at the last minute in
order to hasten a final agreement. On Tuesday, Norm told state
salmon managers that he doesn’t want to see that happen again.
“In area 10, our argument is going to be that if we have
adequate chinook, we should be allowed to fish on our fish — unlike
last year,” he said.
The reduced number of coho returning to Puget Sound has been
blamed on ocean conditions, including higher water temperatures off
the coast and a mass of warm water called “the blob,” which stayed
around for two years. Studies have shown that warmer water alters
the species of plankton available for fish to eat. The result is
that the fish are consuming a plankton lower in fat content,
causing coho to be thinner and fewer.
The 2016 forecast of about 256,000 Puget Sound coho is about 40
percent of the average return over the past 10 years and 29 percent
of the number predicted for 2015 — a prediction that turned out to
be too optimistic. Because of the failed coho forecast last year,
everyone is expected to be more cautious about aspects of the
computer modeling this year.
Charts on this page were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. The
new charts make the presentation easier to understand, compared to
the tables of data discussed at previous meetings. The data tables
are still available when one needs to dig into the finer details.
The new maps use colors to describe how streams are doing. Poor
(red) is if the run or forecast for a stream is less than 75
percent of the 10-year average. Good (green) is if the run or
forecast for a stream is more than 125 percent of the
10-year-average. Neutral (blue) is if the run or forecast falls
between 75 percent and 125 percent.
Anyone may attend the meetings where the ongoing negotiations
and possible tradeoffs are discussed. Allowing more fishing in one
place often results in less fishing somewhere else, and there’s
always the question about whether enough salmon are being left for
spawning in the streams.
“We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide
fisheries in some areas this year,” John Long said. “We would
appreciate input from the public to help us establish
Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and
methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon
On March 14, various parameters for ocean fishing will be set by
the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group empowered by the
federal government to manage fish in the ocean. The PFMC will adopt
ocean fishing schedules and harvest levels during its April 8-14
meeting, at which time state and tribal salmon managers are
expected to approve fishing seasons for the inland waters.
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