Sport anglers gathered in La Conner on Wednesday to protest a tribal spring chinook fishery that is moving forward even as an unprecedented impasse in annual harvest negotiations prevents recreational fishing.

Share story

LA CONNER, Skagit County — Sport anglers gathered here Wednesday to protest a tribal spring chinook fishery that is opening even as an unprecedented impasse in annual harvest negotiations prevents recreational salmon fishing in Puget Sound.

Some 20 fishermen turned out for the demonstration to vent their frustration with the two-day Swinomish tribal fishery that uses gill nets to catch hatchery and wild spring chinook.

They waved their placards at boats headed out to fish, a scene reminiscent of an earlier period in fishery management when bitter protests were sparked by the landmark 1974 Boldt court decision that affirmed tribal treaty rights to half the salmon catch.

That era ended in 1984 as state and tribal officials began to sit down each spring to negotiate a comanagement plan for harvesting Puget Sound’s salmon.

But those talks have become strained in recent years as the tribes and the state worked to establish conservation measures to protect weak runs.

This spring, for the first time, negotiators failed to agree on a management plan before the May 1 start of fishing season. But the tribes — with federal approval — are able to move ahead with some fisheries, while sport anglers and nontribal commercial fishermen find their summer salmon season at risk.

The plan maps out when and where fishing can occur by both tribal and nontribal fishermen, and seeks to prevent overfishing of runs protected by the Endangered Species Act.

State and tribal officials continue to meet this week. If an agreement isn’t reached, more protests against tribal harvests are likely. There also is talk of some sport fishermen taking to the water to fish illegally if the breakdown in negotiations leads to a summerlong closure for nontribal salmon fishing.

“You’re probably going to see that,” said Ron Garner, president of Puget Sound Anglers. “What I’m hearing is — if they fish, we fish.”

Tribal leaders say sport fishermen have already had a chance to catch Puget Sound chinook during fisheries last winter and earlier in the spring.

State fishery records show that from October to April, sport fishermen landed more than 2,400 hatchery chinook in north Puget Sound fishing areas.

“The natives aren’t catching all the chinook,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribe, who headed out to fish Wednesday with his 83-year-old father.

Some tribal members fish in Skagit Bay, while others on Wednesday unfurled their drift gill nets in the Skagit River, targeting early arriving fish. The run will peak later in the spring.

They were watched from the bank by tribal fishery enforcement officials, who monitor the gear, as well as by angry sport fishermen.

“We work with the tribes on many things, but the problem is this process is broken,” Garner said.

The comanagement approach was aimed at ending the fight over the catch. Instead, both sides would focus on trying to protect and improve the troubled salmon runs.

“Comanagement evolved, frankly, out of political expediency,” said Bill Wilkerson, a former state fishery official, in a 2014 talk about the legacy of the Boldt decision. “We figured if we worked together we had more power. That was worth something to the tribes. That was worth something to the state.”

The comanaged runs include 22 chinook stocks listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, so the joint harvest plan must be approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The negotiations have been increasingly contentious with disputes about who should take conservation measures to protect weak runs, along with strong feelings about how the fisheries are conducted.

Tribal fishermen focus on catching salmon for food, not sport, and have been hostile to catch-and-release fisheries enjoyed by some anglers.

Many sport fishermen bridle at gill nets that take both hatchery and wild fish that are key to rebuilding runs. Some also resent tribal efforts to influence state-managed harvests.

“We want to be able to control how we fish,” said Steve Kesling, an Edmonds-based charter-boat operator who attended the Wednesday protest.

Even as the tribal and state talks continue this week, the tribes have developed their own harvest plan, which federal officials say can get swifter approval than a separate state plan for sport fishing. That state plan may be submitted later this week.

The Swinomish fishery at the center of Wednesday’s protest is set to unfold in three, two-day openings in May. It allows commercial sales.

Cladoosby said his salmon catch will be for personal use. He found the fish sparse on Wednesday, and hoped to come up with enough for a Mother’s Day barbecue.