Double Jeopardy: Salmon Season Closed in Puget Sound

There’s trouble brewing in the Puget Sound, where sportfishing for salmon and steelhead is closed due to record low returns. The 2016-17 salmon season hangs in the balance, while state and tribal parties deliberate amidst a numbers game where fish are caught in the middle of populations and politics.

On May 1, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) officials closed recreational and non-tribal commercial fishing on the Puget Sound. At the stroke of midnight, over 1,000 square miles of water became a no-fly zone for salmon fishing. The cause? An unprecedented conflict between the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC) and Washington State officials, who are required to sign a joint fisheries plan before the start of each salmon season.

So far, an agreement has not been reached, and for the first time in 30 years the season is in jeopardy.

“More than one million hatchery and wild coho return to western Washington most years,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the NWIFC. “This year’s run will only be about 370,000. Some hatcheries are not expected to meet egg-take goals needed to produce the next generation of coho.”

Loomis says not meeting hatchery goals brings the specter of extinction, and that kind of threat means shutting down waters. Here’s how some of the numbers break down:

  • 200,000— anglers who held a Puget Sound salmon license in 2014-15.
  • 121,000— the number of coho that were predicted to return to Washington’s Skagit River last year.
  • 5,600— the actual number of fish who made it to their spawning grounds.
  • 16,000— the critical threshold of wild coho biologists say are needed to sustain the run.
  • 60— the number of state, tribal and government officials that met near Tacoma in a divisive April 27 parlay.
  • 1—the number of plans tribes, NOAA Fisheries and the state must agree on to save Washington’s salmon season.

Right now, the Puget Sound is the largest of several fisheries that remain partially or completely closed, alongside Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish and the Skagit, Stillaguamish and Snohomish rivers. (The Columbia River, which snakes south into Oregon, remains open.)

The only salmon fishing taking place right now is among tribes like the Swinomish, who secured permission from NOAA Fisheries to resume brief gill-net pursuits of chinook in their ancestral grounds along the Skagit, which means hundreds of thousands of Pacific Northwest anglers are left scratching their heads … and millions of dollars worth of sportfishing equipment is sitting idle.

“Everybody is worried. Everybody is anxious,” says Ted’s Sportscenter owner Mike Chamberlain, who runs an independent tackle store about 15 miles north of Seattle. “Even though we are a fully-faceted tackle store, salmon still represents a lot of my business. It’s generally half of my business in a year. We have had people who were potentially buying new boats — $150,000-$200,000 boats — and they elected not to do it, and we’ve had countless numbers of people making trips to Alaska and British Columbia to fish. One customer went to Vancouver Island and bought a house.”

Chamberlain has been in the tackle industry since 1968. And even though it hasn’t happened in 30 years, he’s seen closures come and go.

We’ve always managed to pull rabbits out of our hat. We try to get customers to go out and experiment with other fisheries that maybe they’ve neglected over the years. Maybe some will go fish for walleye or bass. There’s albacore down south and good fishing for king salmon in the Columbia River. Will we be as profitable as last year? No. It’s not going to happen, but I’m not going to be so worried that I have empty pegs.

Chamberlain says the vibe around Washington’s closures is extremely negative. The sound is closed, virtually every major salmon spawning stream is closed, and the closures at Lakes Washington and Sammamish impact not only salmon, but every species of fish in those waters.

That negativity has spurned protests at both the Swinomish gill-net fisheries and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Service office near Olympia.

Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Seattle-based Northwest Marine Trade Association, says the playing field between tribal leaders and government officials is not level. ““Something very fundamental is missing in the latest negotiations where the tribes over time have increased their attempt to manage the recreational fisheries,” Floor told the Seattle Times. “To the contrary the state doesn’t attempt to manage the tribal fisheries, but yet (the tribes) are deep in the wheelhouse to manage our fisheries.”

State and NWFIC officials are still attempting to create a compromise. As recently as Tuesday, some tribal leaders still supported complete closures, while state officials were pushing for a reduced harvest cut for sportfishing and temporary closures during peak salmon arrival periods.

“It’s a complex issue that there’s not an easy answer to,” adds Chamberlain. “Even if they do come to some sort of agreement, the amount of salmon fishing we are going to get this season is going to be extremely minimal.”

A current list of open and closed fisheries impacted by the decision is available here.