OLYMPIA - The coho salmon sport fishery scheduled to open Sunday (Oct. 1) in northern Lake Washington is yet another example of how a new era of fisheries management is unfolding in Washington state.
By carefully structuring fishing seasons and using a host of research tools, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and tribal scientists are able to allow fishing on healthy fish stocks and protect weak stocks at the same time.
For example, in Lake Washington and in several Puget Sound rivers already open for coho fishing, scientists have been able to precisely designate fishing locations and times to allow sport fishers to target an exceptionally strong run of coho while avoiding threatened chinook salmon.
"What we are witnessing with these and other seasons is a new era of fisheries, a new way of using the best science we have to meet dual goals of restoring and protecting troubled salmon runs, and providing sustainable fisheries on healthy runs," said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings.
"It's undoubtedly confusing to some people to see fishing taking place in the same waters where efforts are also underway to recover a weak stock, such as chinook," Koenings added. "But that is precisely what can happen if fishing opportunities are sculpted using scientific tools."
All the coho fisheries now underway were approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency which oversees protection of wild salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Fisheries scientists from that agency work closely with the state and tribes to review technical and other data on specific fisheries under proposal.
Fisheries scientists said a major reason why the coho fisheries can be conducted without hurting chinook recovery efforts is because coho return from the ocean to freshwater streams and lakes to spawn at a later date than chinook. Hence, it is possible to fish for one species with minimal impact on the other.
But state and tribal fish biologists also use a variety of methods to keep close tabs on the progress of threatened chinook and adjust fishing activities accordingly. For example, the Lake Washington coho opportunity was postponed when data from radio-tagged chinook being monitored by WDFW scientists indicated the chinook had not yet cleared the lake.
In addition, state and tribal biologists monitor the number of all species of returning salmon as they enter the Ballard Locks on their way back through the lake to their home streams. The scientists also conduct test fisheries to determine which fish species are present in the water at a given time.
Also under way in a number of river systems are fall spawner surveys which count the number of salmon egg nests, known as redds, to gauge the likely strength of the next generation of fish. These surveys recently have been enhanced by a federally-funded effort to improve chinook counts, under way on four westside rivers and the Hanford Reach. As part of that project, WDFW scientists have set up a fish wheel to count salmon in the Skagit River and donned scuba gear to map redds in the Stillaguamish River.
The coho run is unexpectedly robust this year in western Washington, according to WDFW salmon policy coordinator and scientist Pat Patillo. At least 225,000 coho have returned to the Snohomish River system, more than double the 110,000-run that was earlier estimated. In the Skagit River, 100,000 coho have returned instead of the 60,000 forecast, he added.
Those surprisingly large coho runs triggered recent sport fishing openings in sections of the Skagit, Snohomish and Skykomish rivers and an early opening of coho fishing in the lower Green River, as well as the Lake Washington opportunity.
Although improving ocean conditions may be a factor in the strong coho run, chinook numbers have not made the same improvement, Pattillo pointed out.
"It's clear that these coho were in an area of the ocean where life was kind to them, but until we see other species coming back strong, it's too soon to say the ocean is ‘fixed,'" said Pattillo.