Salmon fishing is a little bit like major league baseball. If things don’t go well, there’s always next season.
And like baseball, spring is the time to think about the upcoming seasons for salmon.
March and April are the months when state fisheries officials and tribal leaders, co-managers of Washington’s salmon runs, meet to agree on how many fish are expected to return to their native rivers. Then they decide on how many can be taken by sport anglers and commercial fishers and how many should be left to spawn more fish for the future.
The forecasts are already in. And the news is mostly bad, particularly for local anglers.
Runs of chinook, chum and pink salmon in Puget Sound local rivers are expected to be down, dramatically in many cases.
But there is a bit of good news.
Coho stocks in Washington are holding their own, and this year’s coho run is expected to be a little better than last year’s.
An estimated 905,800 coho are projected to return to the Columbia River this year, an increase of 619,600 fish from the 2018 forecast. About 147,000 coho actually returned to the Columbia River last year.
State officials said they expect to plan for “an abundant harvest” of coho while protecting depleted chinook and steelhead stocks returning to the Columbia and Snake river basins.
For Puget Sound, forecasters are expecting 670,200 coho to return this year, up about 15 percent from the 10-year average, according to Kyle Adicks of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The increased coho returns should provide anglers with some good fishing opportunities on the Washington coast and in parts of the Sound, Adicks said.
But he noted that “extremely low returns (of chinook salmon) in key stocks such as Stillaguamish … will again limit salmon fishing opportunities.” All salmon fishing was closed on the Stillaguamish River last year because of the dismal run of chinook, which are a protected species. Only 378 wild chinook are expected to enter the Stillaguamish River this year.
The river itself still suffers from the poor soil conditions that caused the massive mudslide that killed 43 people in Oso in 2014. Logging and development has poured truckloads of sediment into the river, smothering much of the spawning gravel.
Poor salmon numbers mean closure of the river is possible again, even with a decent coho run, because of the need to protect spawning chinook.
Kurt Kraemer of Marysville, a retired fisheries biologist for Washington state, called the improved coho numbers “a little bit of encouragement.”
But he said the forecasts for pink salmon were “very discouraging.”
Runs of pink salmon, which mostly occur in Puget Sound in odd-numbered years, are expected to be about half of what they were in 2017, which was considered to be an awful year.
The 608,400 coho are expected to return to the Sound this year is roughly 10 percent of the 10-year average of 5.7 million fish. Of that expected return, an estimated 114,769 fish are expected to enter the Skagit River, 47,519 should enter the Stillaguamish, and 128,362 are estimated for the Snohomish River.
Chinook numbers, in addition to the few native fish returning to the Stillaguamish, include 10.921 for the Snohomish River and 14,134 for the Skagit. An expected 12,745 hatchery chinook are expected to return to Tulalip.
Kraemer noted that from 2001 to 2015, the numbers of pink salmon were nothing short of extraordinary.
Indeed, pink runs were one of the few bright spots for salmon anglers for many years. The smallest salmon, most of them running from 4 to 6 pounds, pinks are easy to catch on a wide variety of gear and are prolific spawners.
Kraemer noted that anglers got used to a long period where pink salmon eggs survived well in the rivers and the adults found plenty of food in the saltwater.
“We had more than a decade of extra pink survival and we all got used to that,” he said. “It’s not the new normal.”
He noted that hotter, drier summers and fall and winter floods in recent years have scoured out salmon eggs in many rivers.
Chum salmon have faced similar problems, and Kraemer described their 2019 forecast as “just horrible.”
Some 642,740 chum are expected in the Sound this fall, with 5,193 entering the Stilllaguamish, 11,736 going up the Skagit, and 9,583 joining the Snohomish.
“There won’t be any chum (fishing) opportunities at all,” Kraemer predicted.
Asked why salmon runs continue to decline, Kraemer said the habitat in rivers continues to decline despite restoration efforts and that ocean survival tends to be up and down.
He added that it was his personal opinion that the ecosystem in Puget Sound was “just collapsing.”
“Salmon survival is way down,” he said. “Orcas are starving to death. More herring stocks are critical.”
Adicks noted that dwindling chinook salmon, the primary diet for southern resident orcas, has been linked to their decline. He said officials will consider their dietary needs when setting fishing seasons and will also try to minimize disruptions from fishing vessel traffic.