EVERETT — There will be no commercial or tribal ocean fishing for coho salmon and only a small recreational fishery this year.
This week the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a group of resource managers from federal, state and tribal governments, released its rules for the coming marine fishing season.
The challenge this year centered around an expected downturn in wild and hatchery coho runs, while still allowing for fisheries of more plentiful chinook salmon.
The rules for Washington state and northern Oregon, referred to as the “North of Cape Falcon” region, set the overall allowable non-Indian recreational catch to 18,900 marked hatchery coho, and limited it to ocean areas near the Columbia River.
The tribal and commercial fisheries are focused only on providing a chinook harvest this year, and therefore any coho caught must be released.
“Coho are the restraining stock this year,” said Jennifer Gilden, the council’s outreach officer.
The council does not manage the harvest for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and inland rivers. That happens at the state level, and those discussions are ongoing even as they hit a snag.
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission took action Thursday and pre-emptively closed the coho fisheries of the 20 member treaty tribes for this year, including the Tulalip Tribes and the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians.
The tribal group previously called on the council to consider a “zero option,” to cancel all ocean salmon fishing as well.
“Unfortunately, the political leadership with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife did not provide a fisheries package that met the conservation needs of stocks of concern because of low abundance,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the commission, said in a statement.
“We have argued on the side of conservation and caution this year, and for the tribes that means closing fisheries,” Loomis said.
Most tribal fisheries are in terminal areas, meaning Native Americans are last in line to catch returning salmon, said Tony Meyer, a spokesman for Northwest Indian Fisheries.
“The tribes have to wait and hope that the fish come back and they can have a harvest,” Meyer said.
Canceling the tribal coho season was a cautionary move to try and ensure that enough fish will come back and spawn, he said.
“This year we are seeing the catastrophic consequence and cumulative effects of habitat degradation and loss combined with poor ocean conditions,” Terry Williams, the fish manager in the Tulalip Tribes’ Office of Treaty Rights, wrote to the management council this week in response to the decision to close the coho fisheries.
“We have to collectively stand up and communicate the reality and relationship of habitat to the condition of our stocks and fisheries and create accountability that can drive the change necessary,” Williams wrote.
Wild coho returns are expected to be near record lows in the Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers this year, with just 16,740 projected for the Snohomish and 2,770 for the Stilly.
Those projections are similar to the 2015 runs. But the projections leading into last year had been about 10 times higher for both rivers, catching fisheries managers by surprise.
The Tulalip Tribes also run a small hatchery coho operation. About 20,600 hatchery-raised coho are projected to return to the Snohomish River this year.
The low salmon runs probably stem from a multitude of factors, including habitat loss and development in their inland spawning grounds and climatological effects in the seas.
The north Pacific Ocean “Blob” of warm water dissipated but was replaced by an El Niño weather system, with much the same effect of disrupting the salmon’s natural food supply.
That resulted in fewer and smaller returning fish, a situation that has hurt both inland and ocean fisheries, the latter of which is a significant economic driver for coastal communities.
“It’s our Boeing and Microsoft,” said Butch Smith, who runs a charter fishing business in Ilwaco.
“Both in the ocean commercial fisheries and sport fisheries, we lost between 50-70 days on the water this year and over the last few years,” Smith said.
Smith is also the chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s salmon advisory panel, and he said disagreements about how to manage inland waters, especially Puget Sound, left the group’s work unfinished.
“I witnessed WDFW and staff working harder than I’ve ever seen to try to come up with fisheries for people that try to enjoy Puget Sound, and try to negotiate a deal with the tribes,” Smith said.
The chinook fisheries are expected to be healthier than the coho this year, although they will still be smaller than 2015.
Coastal recreational fisheries will have a total limit of 35,000 chinook in all port areas, compared with a limit of 50,000 in 2015. Coastal commercial fisheries will be limited to 19,100 chinook in the May-June season, about half the 2015 level, and 23,400 chinook in July and August, which is similar to last summer’s season.
Tribal ocean chinook fisheries are set at 40,000 fish, compared with 60,000 fish last year.
The ocean recreational fishing season starts July 1 and runs until Aug. 21 north of Leadbetter Point at the mouth of Willapa Bay, and until Aug. 31 between Leadbetter Point and Cape Falcon, Oregon.
This story has been modified to correct the date of the start of the ocean recreational fishing season.