Tag Archives: fishing

Voluntary no-go area on San Juan Island stirs conflict over orcas

Fishermen in the San Juan Islands are being asked to make sacrifices this summer to help Puget Sound’s fish-eating killer whales. Whether the voluntary actions will make much difference is open to speculation.

A voluntary “no-go zone” for boats cruising the western shoreline of San Juan Island has been announced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Boaters are asked to stay one-quarter mile offshore for most of the island’s west side. A half-mile protective zone around Lime Kiln Lighthouse is part of the voluntary no-go zone. (See map.)

“This voluntary no-go zone is a good step in helping to reduce human impacts in an important foraging area for Southern Resident killer whales,” Penny Becker, WDFW’s policy lead on killer whales, said in a news release.

Years ago, the western shoreline of San Juan Island was a primary hangout for whales, which eat mostly chinook salmon during the summer months. In recent years, however, declines in chinook runs have reduced the time spent by the whales in any one location, so the effects of the voluntary closure are likely to be muted.

The Southern Resident orcas are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Their declining numbers inspired Gov. Jay Inslee to consider emergency actions to save the species from extinction, and he appointed a task force to come up with recommendations later this year.

The idea of protecting the whales by reducing fishing seasons was considered all during negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers this spring in a discussion known as the North of Falcon process. Fishing seasons were reduced, in part to protect low numbers of chinook salmon returning to Hood Canal and critical streams in northern Puget Sound.

After the negotiations were complete, the National Marine Fisheries Service called for additional specific steps to protect the killer whales. The agency — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — oversees efforts to recover endangered marine mammals and has the authority to approve or deny annual fishing plans.

“This step will help support killer whale recovery and prevents a potential delay in federal approval for our salmon fisheries throughout the entire Sound,” said Ron Warren, head of WDFW’s fish program.

Given the reduced chinook fishing scheduled this year, the voluntary no-go zone is a difficult request to make of anglers, Warren acknowledged.

It isn’t clear how much the quarter-mile closure zone will help the orcas, even if every boater complies with the voluntary measure. The goal is to offer the whales more fish to eat and to reduce the noise and interference of boats, which can affect their ability to hunt for salmon.

The measure could help some whales for brief periods, but it won’t affect the overall population, said Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher who knows the whales well.

“It is a feel-good maneuver, and that is fine,” said Ken, who is a member of the governor’s killer whale task force. “The whales aren’t even here most of the time. I’m glad that this issue has the government’s attention, but this is an insignificant step.”

Lately, Ken has been promoting the removal of dams on the Snake River to boost wild runs of chinook in the Columbia River, since the whales forage along the coast, especially in the winter.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has set aside money to boost chinook production in state hatcheries, but implementation of that program is still underway.

For commercial whale-watching boats, the newly announced no-go zone will have minimal effect, since most follow the guidelines of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said Jeff Friedman, the association’s president for the U.S. The same goes for private whale-watch boats that follow those guidelines.

“We have guidelines that go beyond state and federal regulations,” Jeff said, noting that the association’s voluntary guidelines already keep whale-watching boats well offshore when orcas are present. The guidelines are identical to the voluntary no-go zone, except that the no-go zone extends the closure area by about three miles — to the southern tip of the island.

Those most likely to be affected by the voluntary closure are sport fishermen, who move in close to shore to catch salmon that come through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and follow the San Juan Island shoreline during their migration. The no-go zone could really hurt the fishing business, according to Brett Rosson, who operates charter boats out of Anacortes.

“In August and September, this is our primary fishery,” he said, noting that sport fishermen were forced to give up chinook fishing in the area during most of September this year to protect low runs elsewhere in Puget Sound. The no-go zone calls for giving up August as well, he asserted.

Brett argues that anglers’ effects on killer whales are minuscule, because the orcas are so rarely around San Juan Island and because the fishermen take so few fish. His boats, which carry from 14 to 20 people, might take four chinook on a good day, he said.

“Killer whales are traveling all over the place and feeding at night,” he said. “You are going to kill a prime fishing spot for a political, symbolic move.”

It would be one thing if the whales were being hurt by fishing, he said, or if the no-go zone were in effect only when whales are present. The real culprits are the salmon-eating seals and sea lions, which nobody wants to deal with, he added. Meanwhile, commercial fishermen have been declared exempt from the no-go zone and will go fishing as originally planned.

As long as the no-go zone is voluntary, Brett said he will go fishing in conformance with this year’s fishing rules. But he acknowledges that there could be a downside to his actions.

“I think we are being set up,” he said. “Next year, they will say that since you don’t respect the whales, we will make this a permanent closure.”

Norm Reinhardt of the Kitsap Poggie Club said many residents of Puget Sound who enjoy annual trips to the San Juan Islands won’t go this year because of confusion over the voluntary exclusion zones. And future years might be ruled out if formal regulations are approved to close the area for good.

Ron Warren of WDFW said anglers have more opportunity this year to fish for coho salmon than in recent years, and ongoing efforts to restore chinook will benefit both human fishers and killer whales. For information about this year’s salmon fisheries, go to the North of Falcon website.

U.S. Supreme Court justices raise questions about culvert damage

As state and tribal attorneys faced off yesterday in the 20-year battle over culverts, justices for the U.S. Supreme Court drilled both sides about numbers.

A coho salmon tries to leap into a culvert on Gorst Creek where water discharges from fish-rearing ponds. // Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

The culvert case is not about the 50-50 sharing of the annual salmon harvest. The courts ruled years ago that treaties with Puget Sound tribes guarantee Indians half the total salmon harvest, to be shared equally with non-Indians.

The culvert case is about the environment, specifically the idea that culverts are capable of blocking the passage of salmon, reducing the salmon population to a meaningless number and making the treaty right worthless.

From the transcript of today’s Supreme Court hearing, I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting and legally relevant questions.

Opening the hearing and speaking for the state, Assistant Attorney General Noah Purcell said the lower courts have essentially established a new treaty right with the ruling under appeal. If culverts must be replaced as a result of the treaty, then consider what could happen to dams and virtually any development that has ever had an impact on salmon runs, he said.

In legal briefs, state attorneys have argued that the treaties work both ways, that tribes gave up the right to manage the lands they ceded to the U.S.

Justice Samuel Alito noted that the treaty describes the right of Indians to take fish. “What do you think that means?” he asked Purcell.

Three rights come from that language, Purcell said. They are the right to fish in historical places, the right to a fair share of the available fish and a “right to be free of certain types of state actions that are not justified by substantial public interest.”

The tribes, he added, need to show that state culverts specifically are responsible for a “large decline” on a particular river. There are many other causes of salmon declines as well, and the state is trying to work on all of them, he said.

Alito said he doesn’t understand the meaning of “large decline” or even “substantial decline,” the term used by the federal government, which is a party to the case on behalf of the tribes.

“Well,” Percell said, “it has to be more than a fraction of 1 percent of historic harvests or 5 percent of recent harvest. We think, for example, certainly a decline of half the salmon would certainly easily qualify …”

Asked Justice Elena Kagan, “I mean, do you have a number in your head?”

Justice Neil Gorsuch wanted to know whether a 5-percent reduction in the salmon runs would be adequate to support the tribes’ position. “If they could show that 5 percent is attributable to the culverts, would that suffice to satisfy you?” he asked. “And, if not, I guess I’m where Justice Kagan is. What’s your number.”

Purcell said he thought that half would obviously quality but not 5 percent.

“Suppose,” said Alito, “that there were more than salmon than anybody knew what to do with, and then the state did something that caused a decline. Would that be a violation of the treaty?”

“I don’t think that would be a violation even under the respondents’ (tribes’) theory, Your Honor,” Purcell replied. “… and that recognizes the crucial other piece of language… The treaties ceded control of the off-reservation land to future government to regulate in the public interest. And so the government has to have the ability to make some types of decisions, even if they affect the treaty fishing right when there are substantial interests involved.”

Gorsuch said he is struggling with that concept, the idea that state government could pursue other public interests and balance them against treaty rights.

“The point of a treaty, I would have thought, would have been to freeze in time certain rights and to ensure their existence in perpetuity, regardless of what other social benefits a later municipality might be able to claim,” he said.

Purcell said the treaty must recognize interests other than the fishing rights of the tribes, and that includes actions to protect natural resources and public health.

“But where does this public interest theory come in in the treaty?” asked Kagan. “I thought this was an agreement. I give you my land. You give me the right to take fish. And — let’s make it narrower here — I have the right that you will not put up obstructions on these streams such that I can’t take fish.”

“Well, Your Honor,” said Purcell, “if the rule is narrowly limited like that, it’s much less problematic for the state, but the findings would not support that rule and it would outlaw every dam in the Northwest. So it’s inconsistent with the parties’ long-standing behavior.”

Alito asked federal prosecutors in the case whether federal dams also violate the treaties.

Assistant Solicitor General Allon Kedem of the U.S. Department of Justice said that issue was never part of the case and the legal issues have never been developed. Still, he added, many dams are built with fish ladders. In other cases, the U.S. government has compensated the tribes monetarily.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the original language of the treaties, which “gives the tribes the right to take fish in common with all citizens.” One could simply interpret that to mean that nobody should discriminate against Indians, she said.

Kedem said the state had argued that point years ago, but the courts considered representations made by federal officials to the Indians when the treaties were signed. The conclusion, upheld by the Supreme Court, was that the tribes have access to fish in perpetuity.

Justice Kagan returned to the issue of numbers, asking Kedem if he has an idea how much habitat damage constitutes “substantial” degradation — the term used to define a treaty violation.

“So we don’t have a number,” Kedem said, adding that the lower courts used a habitat approach, the idea that loss of habitat would reduce the salmon population.

Later, Justice Alito turned to Attorney William Jay, representing the tribes.

“I hate to keep asking the same question,” he said, but does ‘substantial degradation’ mean a number or “significant degradation’ mean a number?”

“I don’t think it means a hard and fast number,” Jay said. “I think it is something that you would look at in context, in context of the particular species, in context of the strength of the species at a particular time.”

Without giving a number, Jay said, the court found that the state’s culverts are so numerous and reduce access to such a large spawning area that the impact on the fishery is significant.

“I just don’t see how that can mean anything other than a number,” Alito said, “and I still haven’t gotten an answer that seems to give any substance to this.”

Jay said the idea that the local, state or federal government could disregard the intent of the treaty while balancing their own perceived public interests is not consistent with promises made by the president of the United States and ratified by the Senate.

“If the promise made by the United States in exchange for millions of acres of the tribes’ land means anything … it protects against a threat to the fishery like these, a threat that obstructs fish from getting to the usual and accustomed fishing grounds where the tribes have a right to fish.”

For further reading:

New ways of fishing could better protect endangered salmon

Higher standards of “sustainability” for salmon — recently developed by the Wild Fish Conservancy — are designed to put salmon on people’s tables with virtually no impact on depleted salmon runs.

The new standards, which could become part of a certification program, are built upon the concept that fishing should take place closer to streams with abundant runs of salmon. The standards call for fishing methods that can take a portion of the fish from the abundant runs while allowing fish from depleted runs to pass on by and spawn naturally.

“We want to get away from open fisheries, where you are capturing multiple populations all at once,” said Nick Gayeski, a scientist with Wild Fish Conservancy whose studies have raised the bar for sustainable fisheries.

“If you fish much closer to the estuaries, the fish will sort themselves out,” Nick told me, “and you can fish with much more confidence about taking fish from a specific population.”

This idea of “placed-based fishing,” as described by Wild Fish Conservancy, would surely be good for the wild salmon, including Puget Sound chinook and steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It would also be good for a dozen listed species in the Columbia River system. But, if carried out to its full extent, the idea would just as surely create an upheaval for fishermen and fishing communities from Alaska to California.

Much of the chinook salmon caught in the ocean off Southeast Alaska come from the Columbia River, Oregon Coast, Washington Coast and Vancouver Island, according to a draft of the Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook (PDF 6.5 mb).

“Most Puget Sound Chinook stocks are subjected to very low or zero mortality in Southeast Alaska,” the report says, “but there are notable exceptions. On average since 1999, 48 percent of the fishery-related mortality of Hoko, 7 percent of Stillaguamish, and 23 percent of Skagit summer Chinook occurred in Alaska.”

Those last numbers are significant for the listed Puget Sound chinook, considering the distance that these fish are from home. Although salmon managers have taken significant steps to reduce the take of listed chinook, the fish are still caught in significant numbers along the coast and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Despite the ongoing harvest of threatened and endangered species, many of the fisheries taking these fish are certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international group. Most are also listed as “good alternatives” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

Nick Gayeski acknowledges that the “placed-based fishery” he is promoting cannot be accomplished overnight. Much of the salmon in Puget Sound are caught in fairly long gillnets, which ultimately kill the mixture of salmon caught in open waters.

Key criteria for place-based fishing include an assurance that essentially no fish are killed except for the target stock. If fishing close to the stream cannot offer that assurance, then the fishing gear must allow the non-target fish to be released without harm, according to an article by Nick along with Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Jack A. Stanford of the University of Montana. The paper, titled “Criteria for a good catch: A conceptual framework to guide sourcing of sustainable salmon fisheries,” was published this week in the scientific journal “Facets.”

Carefully managed set nets, which are gillnets usually attached to the shore, may allow for survival if the fish are removed within an hour or so, Nick told me. The big purse seines may also are able to save the non-target fish from harm if the net and the fish remain in the water while the crew removes and releases the non-target fish. Obviously, these aren’t the most efficient methods from a fisherman’s perspective.

Fixed gear that catches fish with little handling, such as reef nets, work well to protect the non-target fish, Nick said. Reef nets harken back to a time when fixed gear along the shore was more common. (See the first video above.)

Wild Fish Conservancy has been working with Patagonia, the sustainable clothing manufacturer, to find fishing operations that meet strict standards of protecting non-target fish. Because of the huge impact that food production has on the environment, Patagonia decided to go into the business five years ago with a line of food products called Patagonia Provisions. The video below is a short preview for a longer video called “Unbroken Ground.”

The first product sold was sockeye salmon caught with a set net in the Situk River estuary in the Gulf of Alaska, where nearly all of the sockeye are associated with the river. Other species are released unharmed.

More recently, Patagonia Provisions began buying pink salmon from a company called Lummi Island Wild, which operates a reef net on Lummi Island in northern Puget Sound. The reef net allows fish to be lifted gently out of the water. Any chinook or sockeye caught during the process are returned to the water unharmed.

The pink salmon taken in the operation are bled out immediately and placed on ice to produce the freshest fish possible.

“We think this is a good place to begin the educational process,” Nick said. “The fishers are handling the fish less and getting more money. We hope that restaurants and other retailers will see the value.”

Other fishing operations are under review by Wild Fish Conservancy to see if they can meet the stricter criteria.

Even if the fishing industry does not change overnight, when enough people purchase fish caught in place-based fisheries, it could reduce the pressure on endangered salmon trying to make it home to spawn while also providing some chinook to feed Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales.

“This is part of a transition,” Nick said. “It’s not only a down-the-road reconfiguration of West Coast salmon fishing but it involves long-term recovery of the wild runs.”

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Bringing modern technology to an age-old pastime called fishing

Fishing, which I hear was fairly straightforward in days gone by, has grown more and more complicated in today’s modern world, with growing concerns about fish extinction, poaching and the protection of natural resources.

Technology cannot return us to a simpler time, but there is an event scheduled for next weekend that is designed to make life easier for those interested in fishing, research or environmental protection.

Known as Fishackathon, the two-day event brings together thousands of designers, software developers and fishing experts. Seattle is one of about 40 locations throughout the world where experts will put their heads together to invent technological solutions to some fishing-related problems.

Seattle Fishackathon, which is Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 10 and 11, is still looking for developers who can design and code/build a project, mentors who have expertise in fishing and outdoor issues, and volunteers who can help run the event. Teams can organize in advance and bring any hardware if they plan to build a device.

On Sunday afternoon, spectators are free to watch the demonstrations of projects developed during the weekend. The location is Epicodus vocational school, 1201 Third Ave., in downtown Seattle.

Among the 11 formal “challenges” are these problems looking for solutions:

Easy access to rules: With all the regulations governing fishing today, it is easy to get confused. Wouldn’t it be nice when you’re out in a boat to pull out your smart phone and obtain the fishing rules for that exact location? To meet the challenge, designers are expected to use GPS to map the location on the phone and link to local rules. Among other things, the app would be capable of sounding an alarm if the boat drifts into a closed area.

The worldwide winner of the 2016 Fishackathon was a team from Taipei, Taiwan, which developed an inexpensive sensor that can alert authorities to spawning activities by invasive Asian carp.

Fish identification: For people who have trouble telling one fish from another, this proposed app would use “facial recognition” technology to convert a picture from a smart phone into a positive identification. By stamping the time and location onto the photo, volunteer observers or anglers themselves could help build a database to assist fisheries managers.

Illegal fishing detectors: The goal is a network of small, unobtrusive and inexpensive floats containing electronic equipment that could be deployed over large areas where poaching is suspected. The equipment would include a listening device and software able to distinguish the sound of fishing activity. It could make an audio recording and transmit its location via satellite. A network of such devices would allow for triangulation to the location of the fishing boat, allowing enforcement officials to determine whether the fishing is legal. The equipment could make ocean patrols by authorities far more efficient.

Condition alerts: Fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts would have access to an app for sharing environmental information with authorities and each other in real time. For someone who wants to make a report, the app would call up the location on an interactive map for the person to mark the extent. One could report environmental problems, including algae blooms, fish kills, oil spills, invasive species, and high wind and waves. It could also be used to report conditions at boat ramps, crowded parks, availability of restrooms and poaching activity. The app could also receive reports from others.

Teams may come up with their own concepts, provided they follow the guidelines spelled out on the Fishackathon website.


In 2016, a team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium developed a basic app for helping fishermen follow local regulations in the Philippines.

Fishackathon is coordinated by HackerNest, a nonprofit organization of 75,000 technically inclined people in communities throughout the world. The event was originally supported by the U.S. State Department, which turned it over last year after three annual events, according to Colombe Nadeau-O’Shea, an organizer for HackerNest.

The event is run entirely on donations, and the group is always looking for sponsors, whether it be for the national program or local events, she said.

Amazon Web Services, a primary sponsor, is offering $5,000 to the top winner in each city and $25,000 to the global winner selected among all the city winners. Other prizes are offered at the global level and in some cities.

Amusing Monday: Catching fish by hand can be a rare spectacle

Robert Earl Woodard, an Alabama farmer and retired football coach, has spent 40 years perfecting his technique for catching bass by hand.

As you can see from the first video, his careful procedure involves dangling some bait in the water and waiting for a fish to strike. He then grasps the fish by inserting his thumb into the “V” at the bottom of the mouth and waits for the fish to calm down.

The large mouth bass that Woodard caught in the video weighted in at 16.03 pounds, just half a pound less than the Alabama state record of 16.5 pounds set in 1987.

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Experts agree: Coho fishing must be reduced this year to save species

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.

Coho forecast

“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.

2015 coho returns

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 situation.

2016 coho forecasts

“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 a column published online.

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 said.

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.”

Chinook forecast

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.

2015 chinook returns

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.

2016 chinook forecast

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.

sockeye forecasts

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 priorities.”

Information about the salmon forecasts, the meeting schedule and methods of commenting are available on WDFW’s North of Falcon website.

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.

Amusing Monday: Getting wet is always worth a laugh or two

I’m not a big fan of compilation videos that show a series of accidents in which people get hurt and are obviously in pain. I tend to wince and just want to know if the person involved is OK. I’m sure I could laugh if only I was assured that the person didn’t die or get laid up in a hospital — although this kind of video does not normally convey this kind of information.

Getting wet is quite survivable, which is why I get a real kick from videos showing mishaps involving boats. I keep returning to the blooper videos by TV fisherman Bill Dance, who I blogged about in Water Ways two months ago.

America’s Funniest Home Videos put together a nice compilation of minor incidents involving people on the water. The pacing is just right, and the accompanying music, “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” by Frank Sinatra, couldn’t be better. This video is in the first video player on this page.

I don’t know if a person is more or less likely to be hurt on a large ship than a small boat when things go awry, but property damage from a ship can be enormous. I can easily forgive myself for laughing about terrible property damage as long as nobody gets hurt. Don’t ask me why. Check out:

Shifting gears a little, have you ever wondered what it would be like if Weird Al Yankovik were performing on the Titanic at the time the historic ship went down? I find this video funny, despite the human tragedy that occurred. I think it is because the story itself has become nearly a cliché. The video is called “Weird Al Yankovic On A Boat (And The Band Played On).”

Finally, there’s a commercial for Nitro boats featuring a fisherman guy who finds himself choosing between his boat and his new girlfriend. His answer to the question is simple, as you can see in the video below.

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new information might be coming from research on the threatened and endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish // Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population. In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.

On Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed, and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.

“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said in a news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific council’s conservation policies work.”

Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio, listed as endangered.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and 2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place you would normally look for rockfish.

While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197 grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye rockfish.

“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.

This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat, including locations where fishing guides say they have had success catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging, locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two bacaccio, Dayv said.

“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me, and that means there is still hope for recovery.

Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and 20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100 years.

Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’” — is especially encouraging Dayv said.

Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same cannot be said for canary rockfish.

In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish living in Puget Sound.

If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.

Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned that the sample size is small and more results are needed before anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the coast and those in Puget Sound.

“What initially may seem to be the same could change dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me. “Still just finding them is good news.”

When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.

A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting of the canary rockfish.

For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the population.

Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.) Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.

As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as they are brought to the surface. See “Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Amusing Monday: If you fish long enough, you are bound to get a little wet

Bill Dance, who learned how to fish from his grandfather on Mulberry Creek near Lynchburg, Tenn., is one of the most recognized sport fishermen in the country.

With 23 national bass titles to his name, Bill Dance retired from competitive fishing in 1980 at the age of 39. His television show “Bill Dance Outdoors” has been on the air since 1968, with more than 2000 programs to date. It’s an amazing career, and it appears this man is still out on the water with his fishing pole.

With all the fishing Bill has done through the years, it is inevitable that he has had a few misshaps along the way. Six years ago in this blog, I rounded up some of the amusing moments this fisherman has lived through. Since then, Bill has enhanced his YouTube channel and compiled five “blooper videos” that show the variety of ways that Bill, his friends and his camera operators have managed to get wet.

I’ve posted my favorite compilation video from the Bill Dance collection on this page. Four other humorous videos can be found under “Bloopers, Goof Ups & Funny Moments” on the “Bill Dance Fishing” channel on YouTube.