Recreational Salmon Fishing
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How Salmon Seasons are Set

Constraints to Salmon Fishing

Why can’t I fish for salmon whenever I want to?
Washington salmon fishing regulations are some of the most complex fishing regulations in the world and our seasons are much shorter than we want them to be. The Department of Fish and Wildlife does its best to keep regulations as simple as possible while providing the most salmon fishing opportunity possible. Numerous issues have made simple regulations a thing of the past. Many anglers want to fish for salmon longer than we are currently allowed to. However, the following factors limit our ability to provide additional fishing time and result in very complex regulations:

1) meeting legal requirements of federal treaties with Indian tribes including sharing harvest with tribal fishers,

2) protecting weak stocks, including fish listed under the federal Endangered Species Act,

3) meeting other legal obligations such as those defined by the Pacific Salmon Treaty,

4) providing opportunity for all segments of our non-Indian fishing community, representing commercial and the very diverse recreational interests from ocean to freshwater, and finally

5) addressing dis-orderly fisheries, e.g. snagging issues.

Tribal Fisheries and Co-Management

What is Co-management?
Co-management is a term used to describe the government-to-government relationship between the state of Washington and the Indian tribes whose rights were established in treaties signed by the federal government in the 1850’s. It is also used to describe state-tribal management of salmon, steelhead, groundfish, and shellfish in the Northwest. After nearly a century of conflict and litigation, the rights of Columbia River Indian tribes were re-affirmed in a 1968 federal court case (U.S. v. Oregon) by Judge Robert Belloni. In 1969, the court ruled that the tribes were entitled to take “a fair and equitable share” of the harvestable portion of the runs. The court also held that the state could regulate tribal fisheries only for the purpose of conservation, and that those regulations cannot “discriminate against the Indians”. The rights of Puget Sound Indian tribes were re-affirmed in a 1974 federal court case (U.S. v. Washington) by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt. The order determined, among other things, that the tribes have a right to harvest up to 50 percent of the harvestable surplus of fish within the tribes’ usual and accustomed fishing areas.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of the fundamental principles of the Boldt decision on a 6-3 vote, ending a century of conflict over tribal fishing rights (Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Association). While the issue of tribal fishing rights had been settled, court battles continued over how fish were divided between the two parties. In 1984, state and tribal leaders decided to try a new approach to fish management that relied less upon the courts and more upon fish managers. They agreed that they all wanted effective fisheries management that would conserve the fish and provide fair fishing opportunities for everyone. They agreed to set aside differences about legal principles, and work toward practical solutions, as partners. The result was “Co-Management” of fisheries resources.

The tribes and state cooperate in applying the best science to determine how many fish are needed for spawning and coming to agreement for fisheries that fairly distribute opportunities for both tribal and non-Indian fisheries. Allocation is not necessarily 50:50. Sometimes, another arrangement may be a better fit for the parties’ needs. The tribes adopt and enforce regulations for their members, while the state adopts and enforces regulations for non-Indians.

The following resources may be helpful to understanding these issues:

Protecting Weak Stocks
As part of the Co-management process, state and tribal fish managers agree on spawning goals and limits to the total allowable harvest for each species and stock of salmon. These goals are captured in management plans developed for each region of the state. Each year, some stocks of fish are forecast to return at a level that requires additional protection in fisheries. Under those circumstances, the Co-managers may decide that no directed fishing will be allowed on that weak stock of fish. Fisheries may be designed that are directed at other healthy stocks. Understanding that healthy and weak stocks migrate within the same waters and at the same time, short of a total fishing closure throughout the region, some incidental harvest of weak stock fish is unavoidable. The Co-managers’ plans attempt to limit the amount of this incidental harvest of the weak stock. According to the Puget Sound Salmon Management plan, harvest rates of salmon in fisheries that harvest a mixture of stocks or species must ensure that the weakest stock is protected. Providing adequate conservation of weak stocks will necessitate foregoing some harvest of stronger stocks.

Fish management plans have been completed for the following areas:

Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is federal legislation enacted in 1973 to establish a program to identify and conserve species of fish, wildlife, and plants that are declining in population to the point where they are now, or maybe within the foreseeable future, at the risk of extinction. The ESA prohibits killing or harming an endangered species in any way, including significant modification of critical habitat for the species. It requires federal agencies to develop programs to conserve and to help recover endangered and threatened species. Under the ESA, a species likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future is categorized as "endangered"; one likely to become endangered is categorized as "threatened."

Once a species is “listed” as “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, severe limits are placed on the management options of state and tribal fish managers. In Washington State, the following salmon are listed at “threatened” or “endangered”:

  • Snake River spring/summer chinook
  • Snake River fall chinook
  • Snake River sockeye
  • Upper Columbia River spring chinook
  • Lower Columbia River chinook
  • Lower Columbia River chum
  • Lower Columbia River coho
  • Lake Ozette sockeye
  • Hood Canal summer chum
  • Puget Sound chinook salmon

Washington Co-managers set salmon seasons that avoid these ESA listed stocks, adjusting times and areas to target healthy natural and hatchery stocks, or other species. For example, in the Columbia River, both recreational anglers and commercial fishers are required to release wild spring chinook, but are allowed to retain adipose fin-clipped hatchery spring chinook. Needless to say, it isn’t easy to craft meaningful sport fishing seasons that will meet the conservation needs of listed stocks, while meeting legal sharing requirements with Treaty tribes. The end result almost always is more complex seasons and regulations that are different for each area, month and species.

Pacific Salmon Treaty
Management of Pacific salmon has long been a matter of common concern to the United States and Canada due to the biological nature of Pacific salmon. Pacific salmon migrate long distances, spending several years at sea. In the course of their migratory cycle, United States-spawned fish enter the fishery zones of Canada and Canadian fish enter United States waters, where they are vulnerable to the other country's fishing fleets. Over the years, research by both countries using tagged salmon revealed that Alaskan fishermen were catching salmon bound for British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington; Canadian fishermen were capturing coho, chinook and other species bound for rivers of Washington and Oregon; fishermen in northern British Columbia were intercepting salmon returning to Alaska, and United States fishermen were catching salmon as they traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands towards Canada's Fraser River.

Unless international agreement is reached on management policies and conservation concerns, one nation may harvest too many of the other country's stocks and cause the home country's management objectives to be unachievable. Uncontrolled interceptions may also jeopardize the administrative and financial support needed for salmon enhancement programs: the home country may be reluctant to invest in hatcheries or habitat protection and restoration if too many fish produced are caught by fisheries of another nation. Intercepting fisheries encourage over-harvest and discourage investment in conservation and enhancement.

In 1985, after many years of negotiation, the Pacific Salmon Treaty was signed, setting long-term goals for the benefit of the salmon and the two countries. The Pacific Salmon Commission ( is the body formed by the governments of Canada and the United States to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The Pacific Salmon Commission is a sixteen-person body with four Commissioners and four alternates each from the United States and Canada, representing the interests of commercial and recreational fisheries as well as federal, state and tribal governments.

The Treaty embodies the commitment made by Canada and the United States to carry out their salmon fisheries and enhancement programs so as to:

  • prevent over-fishing and provide for optimum production, and
  • ensure that both countries receive benefits equal to the production of salmon originating in their waters.

In fulfilling these obligations, both countries agreed to take into account:

  • the desirability in most cases of reducing interceptions
  • the desirability in most cases of avoiding undue disruption of existing fisheries, and
  • annual variations in abundance of the stocks.

The arrangements and institutions established in 1985 proved effective in the early years of the Treaty but became outmoded after 1992 when the original fishing arrangements expired. From 1992 to 1998, Canada and the United States were not able to reach agreement on comprehensive, coast-wide fisheries arrangements. In 1999 government-to-government negotiations culminated in the successful renewal of long-term fishing arrangements under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

The major effects of the Treaty on recreational anglers in Washington State are Canadian interceptions of chinook and the need to limit our interceptions of Upper Fraser River/Thompson River coho. Canadian interceptions of Puget Sound chinook have decreased since the 1999 renewal, but for certain stocks of chinook salmon, the majority of the harvest is occurring in Canada, and sometimes Canadian interceptions alone exceed the conservation limits for Washington stocks. For anglers that fish LaPush, Neah Bay, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the San Juan Islands, the requirement to limit U.S. interception of Fraser/Thompson River coho to no more than 10% of the run has made it necessary to require the release of all wild coho (coho with intact adipose fins) during the summer. Without this hatchery selective fishery in place, the length of the seasons would be reduced to a third or less of what they are now.