Chum fishing closed in San Juans but opens soon elsewhere in P. Sound

Commercial fishing for chum salmon has been called off this year in the San Juan Islands, but that does not necessarily mean low numbers of chum will be returning to Puget Sound, experts say.

It will be interesting this year to see how the southern resident orcas respond to the movements of chum — the whales’ second choice after Chinook salmon. And, as always, chum salmon provide Puget Sound residents the best chance of observing salmon in the wild.

The San Juan closure is mandated under the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada whenever the number of chum coming through Johnstone Strait is estimated to be less than 1 million fish. This year marks the first closure since this particular treaty provision was put in place a decade ago.

The estimate of chum abundance, based on test fishing along Vancouver Island’s inside passage, is not a direct indicator of how many chum will make it back to streams in Puget Sound, said Aaron Default, salmon policy analyst with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many of the fish in the Johnstone Strait test fishery are headed for Canada’s Fraser River, he noted.

Chum salmon are important to commercial fishers, and this year’s closure in the San Juans could affect the bank accounts of those who had planned to get an early start on the chum fishery, Aaron told me.

“I would say this is a real concern,” Aaron said. “Reef net fishermen, for example, actively fish for chum as well as sockeye and pinks.”

Gillnet and purse seine boats that don’t make the trip to Alaska often get in on the fishing in Areas 7 and 7A of the San Juans, especially in years when the chum runs are strong.

To the south, in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, commercial fishing is scheduled to begin next week — and it won’t be long before the rest of us can visit our local streams to marvel at the annual migration and maybe catch a glimpse of spawning activities.

The year’s first test fishery for chum runs to Central and South Puget Sound was held this week near Kingston. The operation caught 169 chum, compared to a recent 10-year average of 760 chum for the first week, Aaron reported. While that number is low, it won’t be used as an indicator of abundance for at least a couple more weeks, because it could just mean that the run is later than usual, he said.

State and tribal salmon managers predicted a chum run of 444,000 fish this year in Central and South Puget Sound, compared to a 10-year average of about 527,000. Fishing schedules were based on the forecast of 444,000, but fishing times could be adjusted if chum numbers are lower or higher than that.

In Hood Canal, the run size of 518,000 chum is well below the 10-year average of about 750,000. But that 10-year average is a little misleading, because it contains two extraordinary years: 2013 with a return of 1.4 million chum, and 2017 with just over 1 million, Aaron explained. If we exclude those two years, Hood Canal’s fall return this year should be fairly typical.

Nest week’s opening of commercial fishing in Puget Sound and Hood Canal allows nontribal purse seiners to fish on Wednesday and gillnetters to follow on Thursday. Typically, we see a lot of purse seiners lining up south of the Hood Canal bridge for the first day of fishing, and this year should be no exception. For commercial fishing openings, one can check the WDFW Fishing Hotline online, or call (360) 902-2500.

The fishing closure in the San Juan Islands is likely to remain, although salmon managers will reassess conditions on or before Oct. 22, using information from the Albion test fishery near the Fraser River. By then, many of the chum will have already moved through the San Juan Islands on their way to their home streams.

As the chum runs arrive in Central and South Puget Sound, our southern resident orcas are likely to make more treks into these regions, intercepting chum salmon returning to streams along the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula and inside Sinclair and Dyes inlets. The orcas spent about two weeks in Central and North Puget Sound during September, but then headed back to sea. In good years, the whales will venture past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to hunt chum that are headed to streams as far south as Olympia.

The endangered southern residents now number 73 and their population has reached a critical stage. The Southern Resident Orca Task Force has made recommendations for restoring the orca population, with a primary goal of increasing their food supply.

For humans, we are now approaching prime salmon-viewing season. For years, I have encouraged people to visit our local streams to observe the end of a journey that has taken these fish thousands of miles as they prepare to produce a new generation of chum. Please approach the stream slowly and avoid disturbing the water out of respect for the salmon and to give yourself a chance to observe spawning behavior.

The Kitsap Sun still maintains a map with videos showing some of the best places on the Kitsap Peninsula to view salmon. Some of the videos are out of date, and this year Kitsap County’s Salmon Park near Chico is closed for construction of a new bridge across Chico Creek. Still, the map shows many places to view salmon — including places on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Eight places will be featured on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 9. This annual event, sponsored by WSU Kitsap Extension, is fun and informative for the entire family.

Erlands Point Preserve won’t have a salmon-viewing platform, as I reported in Water Ways Aug. 23, because beavers built a dam that flooded the proposed viewing site. Nevertheless, the preserve will be the place to visit informational booths, learn about salmon and enjoy some refreshments.

Details on each of the sites on the tour can be found on the Kitsap Salmon Tours website, including these additional outings with knowledgeable guides:

  • Nov. 13, 10 a.m. to noon, at Jarstad Park on Gorst Creek,
  • Nov. 13, 11 a.m. to noon, at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek,
  • Nov. 14, noon to 1 p.m., at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek and
  • Nov. 17, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Salmon Haven on Dickerson Creek.

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