Local salmon anglers have suffered through several poor years that have included unprecedented fishery closures and terrible returns. So, when the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) projected a huge coho run in the Columbia for this fall, fishermen across the region rejoiced.
The hope was that the trend of terrible ocean conditions was ending and better times lay ahead.
However, that hope has faded. Not only did the coho not show as expected, some signs point to more years of poor salmon returns.
Ryan Lothrop, the Columbia River fishery manager for the WDFW, reports that there were some early signs that the run was not as strong as expected.
“They only used about one half of the ocean coho quota,” he said, “and it is kind of tracking in that ballpark in-river.”
He reported that the Buoy 10 fishery also underperformed, with catches short of the quota.
However, fishing guide Bill Monroe Jr. reports doing well at Buoy 10 early on.
“It was pretty good until the second or third week of September,” he reported.
However, the hatchery mark rate was low, and he had to pick through a lot of wild fish to get his limit. He did notice that the run seemed below target, and the fish were much smaller than usual.
“I think those A and B index coho underperformed significantly,” he said.
Cameron Black of Gone Catchin’ Guide Service has targeted coho recently in the Lewis River, and he also reports underperforming fisheries.
“There’s fish around,” he said. “We are having some double-digit days but it’s been very inconsistent, which is a sign of a not-strong run.”
Coho fishing this fall has been better than last year, but it has not been as good as expected. With the early run in the bag, a look at some local hatchery returns is telling.
The original Cowlitz River projection was over 61,000 adults. With the early run ending, 10,558 adults have returned so far, which compares to 5,430 adults for the same time last year.
A look at Cowlitz jack returns, which are one indicator of next year’s run, is not promising. Last year by this time 11,856 jacks had been recorded. This year that number is down to 1,523.
Over on the Lewis River the early run projection was for 36,000 coho. However, with the early run now almost over, the hatchery return is only a little over 7,500.
This has left many anglers asking, what happened?
Ocean conditions poor
Ocean conditions have been blamed for the recent poor returns. The formation of “The Blob,” a mass of unusually warm water in the north Pacific, was hard on salmon survival. It supposedly broke apart a couple years ago but now seems to be coming back.
Brian Burke, a supervisory research fisheries scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was recently asked if The Blob was, in fact, reforming.
“Yes, it certainly is,” Burke said.
He reported that it is still unclear what that might mean. The effects of warm water take some time to show.
“When the first blob came, it was a year after it that we started seeing some of the larger impacts,” he said. “So, I think there is this lag between when the physical environment changes and when the biological environment changes in response to that.”
“We were seeing fish species that were normally much further south that came north. We saw shifts in the jellyfish population. All these bigger changes happened a year or so after The Blob (formed).”
He said the big question was whether The Blob would last until next summer.
“If it exists into next summer it’s my guess that we are going to see a lot of impacts on the ecosystem,” he said. “If it dissipated over winter and is gone, maybe not so much.
“Last year and again this year what we found were a bunch of mixed signals,” Burke said. “Some things were back to normal, and other things were kind of still in this altered state.
Burke also weighed in on the low coho return:
“If the number of juveniles going out were consistent, then something happened in the ocean. We just can’t say whether it is low growth rates, predation, or something else. There are a lot of things that can result in lower than expected returns.”
“They are all related to ocean conditions,” he added.
So, are local anglers looking at more years of poor runs?
“All of the correlations that we do have suggest that if The Blob exists again for multiple years it’s not going to be good,” said Burke.
If warm waters remain, southern species such as pompano could compete with juvenile salmon for food. Other species, such as Pacific mackerel, could start eating the salmon.
In fact, Monroe reported that mackerel were so numerous as to be pests this past summer when fishing in the ocean.
“There are definitely warm water species that are coming in,” Burke said. “If we just have one warm year, they might expand their range a little, but not all the way up to Washington waters.”
However, if it is sustained for 3 or 4 years, that could be enough for these species to expand their range significantly.
If climate change is the driver behind the altered ocean conditions, then there is genuine reason for alarm.
“I’m a little concerned about these anomalous events becoming more common,” Burke said, “and you get a few years in a row and we could see bigger impacts then we saw with the last one.”
“I am concerned,” he said.