A federal panel has approved limited ocean salmon harvests off Washington’s coasts, but state and tribal fishery managers cannot yet agree on a plan for Puget Sound.
VANCOUVER — A federal fishery council has approved limited ocean salmon harvests off Washington’s coasts, but state and tribal fishery managers were unable to agree on a Puget Sound fisheries plan.
The impasse, which comes amid forecasts of extraordinarily low coho returns, puts this year’s Puget Sound recreational sport salmon season at risk.
After days of meetings, state and tribal officials are at odds on what harvest cuts to make, and by whom, to protect the weak wild coho runs as well as chinook runs listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The door is still open to continue negotiations; we ran out of time this week,” said Jim Unsworth, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Both state and tribes offered to conserve fish, but there were a couple of issues we were unable to resolve.”
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If no agreement is reached during the next few weeks, the state could try to come up with a separate management plan that would be submitted to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries for approval.
But federal officials have warned the state that they likely could not approve such a plan in time for a 2016 Puget Sound salmon season.
The ocean-salmon seasons largely unfold in offshore federal waters, and they are set by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which met this week in Vancouver. In the area north of Cape Falcon, which includes the ocean fishing grounds off Washington’s coast, the council set the overall sport catch this season at 35,000 chinook and 18,900 hatchery-marked coho.
At the same time, state and tribal officials conducted their annual negotiations to try to reach agreement on the Puget Sound salmon fisheries.
These talks have grown increasingly contentious in recent years. In a conference call with state officials Thursday, sport-angler representatives told state officials they would prefer to sit out the season rather than agree to tribal proposals being offered.
“The deal we had was so bad that we just couldn’t accept it, “ said Ron Garner, president of Puget Sound Anglers.
Tribal officials, in a statement released by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, took a starkly different view of the Puget Sound talks.
In an effort to protect weak stocks, they say they have proposed numerous conservation cuts, including shutting down some of the ceremonial fisheries that targeted coho. For example, three tribes on the Skagit River would forgo all coho fishing except for a small research catch conducted by tribal biologists.
The tribes say state officials failed to come up with acceptable cuts to the harvests they manage.
“Unfortunately, the political leadership with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife did not provide a fisheries package that met the conservation needs of stocks of concern,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We have argued on the side of conservation and caution.” On Friday, the tribes resumed talks with state officials, according to a commission staffer.
The commission has 20 tribal members whose harvests encompass both smaller ceremonial and subsistence catches as well as commercial fisheries, often near the mouths of rivers where fish are returning to spawn. It was formed in the aftermath of the landmark 1974 Boldt decision in federal court, which reaffirmed tribal rights to equal shares of the harvestable salmon that return each year and established tribal comanagement of the Puget Sound fishery runs.
The tribal fishing plan has been submitted to NOAA Fisheries, according to a commission statement. And it could be approved without the months of delays that a separate state plan would face, said Bob Turner, a NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator who outlined the approval processes in a Jan. 19 letter to state and tribal officials. But on Friday, a commission staffer said the tribes did meet again with state officials to discuss a joint management plan.
Sport fishermen, who angle from shore and boats, say they also have been willing to take cuts to preserve the weak runs.
During the salmon season-setting process that began in early March, both the state and the sport-fishing advisory board members created what they believed was a solid package of fishing options that would have led to a 50 to 80 percent reduction from last year in time on the water.
“Everyone recognized that extraordinary restrictions to sport fisheries would be necessary, so the recreational community was squarely behind the department (state Fish and Wildlife)” in developing a conservation-oriented sport package, said Pat Pattillo, who spent three years as the state Fish and Wildlife salmon policy coordinator and now is a spokesman for 10 sport-fishing groups.
Scientists say the coho’s ocean survival was undermined by the blob, a vast area of warmer ocean water that altered the makeup of the food chain in the waters off the West Coast.
Many Puget Sound coho that went to the ocean either didn’t survive or came back in an unhealthy state. The wild coho run that returned to the Skagit, for example, was less than 12 percent of the average of the past decade.