Drastic year could lead to ban on coastal salmon fishing

OLYMPIA — State, federal and tribal officials may bar salmon fishing off Washington’s coast this year in anticipation of another bad year of returning coho salmon.

Closing recreational and commercial fishing for chinook and coho salmon in ocean waters is the most drastic of three options approved Sunday for public review in advance of an April decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Some salmon fishing would be permitted under the other two options drafted by state, tribal and federal fishery managers serving on the council.

“We’re looking at a pretty bad situation for coho and we need to do what we can to preserve them,” said Kyle Adicks, salmon policy analyst for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Closing fisheries is “an extreme option but it’s an option we’re looking at.”

The idea of closures — the so-called zero option — came from tribal fishery managers to highlight the seriousness of the situation, said Lorraine Loomis, fishery manager for the Swinomish Tribe and chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“Every system has to take some precautionary measures,” she said. “That’s why it is so drastic this year.”

The salmon season in 2015 was particularly anemic, thanks to a triple wallop of low levels of snowmelt leading to low-flowing and warmer streams, an intense summer drought and “The Blob,” an unmoving mass of warm ocean water in the north Pacific that threw off the natural rhythms of the marine ecosystem.

The Blob may be gone, but it’s been replaced by an El Niño weather system, which also brings warm water into the North Pacific.

As a result, the forecast for even lower coho returns is causing grave concerns and a potential for the first salmon fishery closure since the early 1990s.

Statewide, forecasters expect 380,000 Columbia River hatchery coho to return to the Washington coast, which is about half of last year’s forecast, according to the state Department of Fish &Wildlife.

On the positive side, the Columbia River Chinook salmon run is expected to be healthy. State officials expect the return of about 223,000 lower river hatchery fish, which traditionally have been the backbone of the recreational ocean chinook fishery.

The council next month will approve chinook and coho quotas as part of a comprehensive package covering marine and freshwater fisheries throughout Puget Sound, the Columbia River and Washington’s coastal areas.

State and tribal co-managers will begin formal negotiations on those fisheries Wednesday, Loomis said.

An agreement will be finalized at the council’s April meeting.

A significant piece will be the restrictions imposed on recreational ocean fishing for chinook and coho salmon.

One alternative keeps both salmon seasons open. It sets quotas of 58,600 chinook and 37,800 coho. Fishing for hatchery chinook in ocean waters would be allowed from June 18-30 and for hatchery coho in the traditional summer fishery starting around July.

A second alternative reduces quotas to 30,000 chinook and 14,700 coho. Under this option, there is no early season fishing for hatchery chinook. Rather it would be limited to summer chinook fisheries in the state’s four marine areas. Meanwhile, fishing for hatchery coho would be allowed only in the region known as Marine Area 1 around the Columbia River.

The final alternative closes all commercial or recreational salmon fisheries in ocean waters off Washington’s coast.

Public meetings on the alternatives are scheduled around the state in the next few weeks with a formal hearing March 28 in Westport.

The council plans to adopt final ocean fishing seasons and harvest at its meeting April 8-14 in Vancouver, Washington. The inland seasons and harvest will be set by the state and tribal co-managers at that meeting, too.

Herald writer Chris Winters contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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