Endangered Species Act coverage for Puget Sound fisheries

Puget Sound blackmouth salmon
Photo by Toby Black

The 2020 State of Salmon report concluded that wild Puget Sound Chinook salmon are “in crisis” despite being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for more than two decades. The number of natural-origin Chinook salmon returning to many Puget Sound rivers has dropped to some of the lowest level on record, affecting the entire Puget Sound ecosystem, as well as local economies and fishing opportunities. Recovery is still possible—if we take bold and meaningful action now to provide the cool, pollutant-free water and productive rivers that salmon—and people—need.

As part of an intensified, comprehensive effort to address this decline, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and tribal co-managers in Puget Sound have completed a 10-year Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.  WDFW and tribal co-managers developed the plan through an intensive, eight-month mediated process led by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). 

The plan was submitted in early 2022 to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for review for consistency with the conservation, monitoring, and other requirements specified in Limit 6 of the 4(d) rule to secure ESA-coverage for the proposed fisheries. In February 2023, NMFS found that the plan was sufficient to proceed with formal review under the 4(d) rule. 

What is the Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan?

The overarching objective of the plan is to:

“Ensure that fishery-related mortality will not impede rebuilding of natural Puget Sound Chinook salmon populations, consistent with the capacity of properly functioning habitat, to levels that will sustain fisheries, enable ecological functions, and are consistent with treaty-reserved fishing rights.”

WDFW and the co-manager tribes have submitted a long-term fishery management plan that provides certainty on management objectives, continues to ensure that fisheries do not impede the conservation and recovery of Puget Chinook salmon, and results in long-term ESA coverage.

Consistent with that objective, the plan establishes fishery management objectives and strategies for fisheries from 2023 through 2032.  The plan considers and incorporates:

  • The effects of habitat loss and degradation on the productivity of Puget Sound Chinook salmon;
  • The substantial fishery impacts on some Puget Sound Chinook salmon stocks in northern fisheries (Canada and Alaska); and 
  • Constraints on Puget Sound fisheries as needed to contribute to conserving and rebuilding Puget Sound Chinook salmon.

Why is this plan needed?

A fishery that results in the catch or catch-and-release of a threatened Puget Sound Chinook is in violation of the ESA unless that fishery has ESA coverage provided by NMFS. A multiyear co-manager fishery plan approved by NMFS provides such coverage.  Since the last multiyear Puget Sound fishery management plan expired in 2014, ESA coverage has been provided by NMFS on an annual basis – a cumbersome and uncertain process.

If approved by NMFS, the new long-term fishery management plan will provide certainty on management objectives, continue to ensure that fisheries do not impede the conservation and recovery of Puget Chinook salmon, and result in long-term ESA coverage.

The annual North of Falcon salmon season-setting process remains in place to discuss the allocation of harvestable fish between treaty and non-treaty fisheries. The plan benefits the North of Falcon process by providing an already agreed-to conservation framework to help streamline negotiations between WDFW and Puget Sound tribal co-managers.

What was WDFW’s approach when developing this plan?

NMFS federal rules require that a fishery plan must:

  1. Be consistent with plans and conditions established within any Federal court proceeding with continuing jurisdiction over tribal harvest allocations;
  2. Define populations that take into account spatial and temporal distribution, genetic and phenotypic diversity, and other appropriate identifiably unique biological and life history traits;
  3. Set escapement objectives or maximum exploitation rates;
  4. Display a biologically based rationale demonstrating that the harvest management strategy will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of the “Evolutionarily Significant Unit” in the wild; and
  5. Include effective monitoring and evaluation programs to assess compliance, effectiveness, and parameter validation.

These complex and challenging requirements were addressed during the federal mediation process with WDFW and the 17 affected tribes.  The written agreement that initiated the mediation process required that the parties maintain confidentiality consistent with federal and state laws that recognize the need for such a process. 

Nevertheless, to ensure that WDFW was well-informed during the mediation process, and to obtain the benefit of public views, we compiled information relevant to conserving and rebuilding Puget Sound Chinook salmon in a draft scoping report released for public review on Sept. 22, 2021.  We received and reviewed over 500 comments and are now working to finalize the report and responses to the comments.  The report, public comments, and federal requirements informed WDFW as we worked through the confidential, federal mediation process. The public will also have an opportunity to comment upon NMFS’ evaluation of the Plan, and its ESA determinations, as part of the federal NEPA process.

What is the difference between the 2022 plan and the 2017 plan?

The 2022 plan builds upon work associated with a draft plan the comanagers submitted in 2017, but which NMFS determined was in need of refinement.  Since that time, renegotiation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada has resulted in new obligations for U.S. fisheries management and fishery managers have compiled additional information on stock status and developed improved stock assessment tools. We summarize several key points below, but additional information can be found in the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon report. 

The co-managers considered these factors, and many others, in the development of the 2022 plan.  It is important to recognize that an “apples to apples” comparison cannot be made between the exploitation rates in the 2017 and 2022 plans.  Changes in the Fishery Regulation Assessment Model (FRAM) and other stock assessment tools mean that a higher value for the exploitation rate does not equate to increased opportunity or fewer fish on the spawning grounds. Rather, the exploitation rates reflect a desired conservation outcome for Chinook. 

The combination of updated FRAM outputs and revised exploitation rates may produce fisheries as tightly constrained as before even though the numerical exploitation rate has increased.  Ultimately, we anticipate that, at least in the short-term, fisheries will continue to be tightly constrained as we work to increase the number of natural-origin spawners and the overall productivity in rivers.

Mid-Hood Canal Chinook 

The 2022 plan does describe a new management approach for Mid-Hood Canal Chinook salmon.  After careful review of historical and current information, the co-managers have concluded that the Mid-Hood Canal rivers do not have the necessary quality and quantity of habitat, capacity, and connectivity to support an independent self-sustaining Chinook population.  
Accordingly, the co-managers have asked NMFS to reconsider the role that Mid-Hood Canal Chinook has in the recovery of the Puget Sound Chinook ESU.  In the interim, the co-managers have proposed the following measures to ensure compliance with federal requirements and address any conservation concerns for Mid-Hood Canal: 

  1. Fishery impacts on Mid-Hood Canal Chinook will be limited in marine waters by the constraints imposed by the other 14 management units; 
  2. No fisheries directed at Chinook salmon will occur in the Mid-Hood Canal rivers, and 
  3. Puget Sound fisheries will be designed to ensure they have a negligible effect (less than 7 spawner reduction) on the survival or recovery of the spawning aggregations within the Mid-Hood Canal population. 

Puget Sound Recreational Fishery Actions

In addition to defining management objectives, the co-managers have agreed on fishery management strategies both in the plan and in separate agreements to conserve and rebuild Puget Sound Chinook salmon.  Although the co-managers will develop most management measures during the annual North of Falcon process, some actions were considered of sufficient importance and longevity to include the plan.  These recreational fishery actions are summarized in the table below.

Recreational Fishery Years in Place Recent Fishery
Puyallup and Carbon Rivers:  open maximum of 4 days per week from August through September. 2022-2027 Puyallup:  Open 6 days per week during August openings, 4 days per week during September
Carbon:  Open daily Sept. 1 - 30
Admiralty Inlet (Marine Area 9) south of a line from Foulweather Bluff to Olele Point: Closed July 16 – August 15 2022-2032 Same
Admiralty Inlet (Marine Area 9) south of a line from Foulweather Bluff to Olele Point:
Closed Dec. 1 - June 30
2022-2032 Area 9 closed Oct. 1 - June 30
Hood Canal (Marine Area 12):  Closed Dec. 1 - June 30  2022-2032 Same
Hood Canal (Marine Area 12): Do not increase fishery footprint North of Ayock during summer and fall. 2022 until NMFS determines fishery limits on Mid-Hood Canal Chinook not necessary Same


National Marine Fisheries Service review process and public comment

WDFW and the tribal co-managers are currently discussing with NMFS the ESA review process and requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Our experience, and preliminary communications from NMFS, suggests that 15-18 months will be necessary to complete the ESA and NEPA processes.  That means that, at least for the 2022-2023 fishing year, fisheries and ESA coverage will need to once again be provided on a short-term basis. The new plan will be used as a framework by state and tribal co-managers for developing the fishery package in the 2022 North of Falcon process.

NMFS will be soliciting comment on the plan on multiple occasions during the review process.  We will be providing updates on the status of the review.  Please provide your email address on our web page if you wish to receive those notifications.

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