SACRAMENTO – This year's salmon fishing seasons must include new conservation measures designed to help rebuild wild salmon stocks in Puget Sound and coastal rivers, say representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) meeting here as part of the North of Falcon season-setting process.
Meeting in conjunction with the coastwide Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), WDFW and tribal co-managers expect to finalize this year's salmon fishing seasons here later this week. Recreational and commercial fishers, along with other members of the public, have been involved in deliberations over the 2001 salmon seasons since late February.
Despite predictions of the largest salmon return of salmon since the mid-1980s, WDFW fisheries managers say additional protective measures are needed to protect depleted stocks of wild chinook salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.
"Rebuilding weak stocks of wild salmon is – and must be – our first priority this year and every year until the job is done," said WDFW director Jeff Koenings. "There should be good fishing this year on healthy stocks and hatchery runs, but we need to make sure that depleted stocks benefit from this year's return."
According to the agency's pre-season forecast, 1.1 million coho salmon are expected to return to the Columbia River this summer – the largest number since 1985. That compares to a return of 728,000 coho last year. Estimates of both coho and chinook salmon are also higher for most rivers in Puget Sound, on the coast, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.
As in recent years, the agency's proposal allows anglers off the Washington coast to keep only those coho salmon with a clipped adipose fin, the sign that they are hatchery-raised fish. The agency is also proposing several new measures designed to protect weak runs of wild chinook salmon, including:
- Commercial exclusionary zone: Commercial salmon fishing would be prohibited within 17 miles off shore from the U.S.-Canada border to Cape Alava south of Neah Bay to protect Puget Sound chinook salmon during peak months of migration. This action is proposed in conjunction with the PFMC, which has jurisdiction beyond three miles of the coast.
- Blackmouth fisheries: Sport seasons for blackmouth salmon (immature chinook) in Puget Sound and Hood Canal would be restructured to protect depressed chinook stocks in those areas. WDFW expects to announce specific opening and closure dates later this week.
- New commercial harvest limits: The incidental catch by the commercial chum salmon fishery in central Puget Sound (Marine Areas 10 and 11) could not exceed 200 chinook salmon, an 80 percent reduction from previous years. Once the limit is reached, the fishery would be closed.
- Observers: WDFW plans to expand the number of observers it puts on vessels in Puget Sound and the waters around the San Juan Islands to monitor the incidental catch of wild chinook salmon in the commercial sockeye and chum salmon fishery.
Koenings said those actions are consistent with the new Comprehensive Chinook Plan, approved this year by WDFW and the treaty tribes, which establishes the minimum number of wild chinook needed for spawning and strict limits on the number that can be taken as an "incidental" catch in other fisheries. The Chinook Plan was designed to meet federal requirements for protecting Puget Sound chinook salmon, which were listed as a "threatened" species under the ESA in 1998.
Koenings said the state and the tribes are "jointly committed" to rebuilding depleted chinook stocks in Puget Sound, while allowing a sustainable level of fishing on other stocks with healthy returns.
"Through time and area closures, gear restrictions and other means, we had to make fisheries in our state much more selective than they were in the past," Koenings said. "That means that we can target hatchery fish and other healthy stocks, while allowing weak stocks to rebuild. That's the model we plan to follow again this year."
Koenings said this year's fishing season proposals were developed with a new emphasis on public participation, involving an expanded series of public meetings and a new agency website dedicated to the season-setting process.
"The final plan for this year's salmon fishing seasons shouldn't come as a big surprise for those folks who are interested," Koenings said. "We've been talking about most of these ideas for well over a month now."