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State Fish and Wildlife unveiled salmon forecasts to a packed house in Olympia on Tuesday, and as usual there are some highlights mixed in with lowlights as the first steps are taken in this lengthy process of setting fishing seasons.

The good news is a Puget Sound forecast of 559,045 coho (267,745 wild and 291,301 hatchery) is a drastic increase from last year’s dismal forecast of 255,403 (87,359 and 168,585) that led to one of the most contentious disagreements between state and tribal fishery managers on how to carve out fisheries.

“We are in a better situation (from last year) and coho returns are OK,” said Aaron Dufault, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “There are some places like North Sound which aren’t looking good at all.”

In general the Puget Sound coho run is up about six percent of the 10-year average, and the hatchery component is up 118 percent from last year.

The Snohomish river system coho forecast is 169,283 (37,365 was forecasted last year); Mid-Puget Sound includes Lake Washington, Green River and Puyallup River is 100,224 (28,532); Strait of Juan de Fuca is 25,845 (7,810); Nooksack/Samish is 58,845 (37,776); Skagit is 18,711 (13,859); Stillaguamish is 9,142 (2,770); deep-South Puget Sound is 22,366 (8,504); mid-South Puget Sound is 122,590 (37,036); and Hood Canal is 154,629 (118,787).

State and tribes hope to avoid repeat of last year

This comes on the heels of last year’s hardest process to craft fishing seasons in recent history, and where Puget Sound salmon seasons hit a stalemate after the state and tribal fishery officials couldn’t come to terms on how to craft fisheries due to what was expected to be a very poor Puget Sound coho return.

Some of the most draconian fishing seasons were set at the end of May – more than a month later than usual – and led to widespread closures in Puget Sound although it was later determined that coho returns weren’t as bad as thought and some fisheries were reopened in late fall.

Ryan Lothrop, a state Fish and Wildlife Puget Sound salmon manager indicates they have placeholders on the table to hopefully avoid a debacle like last year.

“Nobody wants a repeat of last year’s North of Falcon process that required a month of overtime negotiations and led to a delay in opening some sport fisheries,” Lorraine Loomis, the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission said in a recent monthly column she writes for the NWIFC. “It was the first time in more than 30 years that the co-managers were unable to complete the process in the usual late February through April timeframe.”

“Some said the delay showed that the process is broken. It’s not. The fact that we reached an agreement is proof of that. What is true is that salmon management is becoming more difficult every year as the resource continues to disappear.”

Loomis said poor ocean food supplies, climate change, and the ongoing loss and damage of salmon habitat have led to record low returns of chinook and coho for the past few years. This reality demands increasing caution by the salmon co-managers as we work to share and rebuild a steadily shrinking resource.

“I am optimistic that we will finish on time and agree on a package of fisheries that balances the needs of all fishermen and the sustainability of the salmon resource,” Loomis said. “Still, no fisherman is going to get everything he wants this year. We all want more fish, but there just aren’t enough. So, let’s look at what we can do together.”

Puget Sound chinook on possible upswing

On the chinook front, the Puget Sound outlook shows an uptrend in the forecast of 193,962 (166,235 are hatchery and 27,727 are wild) compared to 165,150 forecasted last year.

“The 2017 chinook forecast is a mixed bag for Puget Sound, and most Puget Sound wild stocks had decent returns (last year) based on the 10-year average,” Dufault said. “We are in a slightly better situation (for hatchery returns) than the 2016 forecast.”

The bulk of the chinook forecast originate from southern Puget Sound where 80,400 hatchery and 4,700 wild fish are expected to come back this season that includes 8,219 in Carr Inlet, 18,341 in Deschutes, 22,669 in Nisqually and 1,229 in Chambers.

The northern Puget Sound chinook forecast is 53,209 with a slight improvement on Stillaguamish of 1,500 (500 last year); Snohomish is 8,200 (8,300); Skagit is 16,200 (15,500); Nooksack is 21,200 (27,900); and Tulalip is 5,300 (1,400).

In Hood Canal, the Skokomish River forecast is slightly up at 27,729 (24,377 last year), but last summer the river remained closed due to a land dispute that prevented sport angler access to this majority hatchery production system.

On the coast, fisheries managers are predicting a return of 198,115 coho (159,452 last year). A breakdown shows 91,718 (67,609) to Willapa Bay; 55,735 (36,921) to Quinault; 5,799 (2,066) to Hoh; 6,500 (3,500) to Queets; 4,844 (1,653) summer fish to Quillayute; and 33,427 (10,911) fall fish to Quillayute. Forecasts for wild coho weren’t available for the Grays Harbor, but the hatchery component is 36,400 (22,900).

Coastal chinook forecasts are 38,500 (39,500) to Willapa Bay; 2,700 (1,800) for fall fish to Hoh; 4,600 (6,600) for fall fish to Queets; 7,600 (7,500) summer/fall fish to Quillayute. Forecasts weren’t available for the fall fish in the Quinault.

Pink forecast falls well short of past years but still over a million

Depending how you look at it the Puget Sound pink forecast of 1,150,522 could be deemed dismal especially compared to the more than 6.7-million pink salmon (6.2-million in 2013) were forecasted in 2015 and 6.2-million in 2013.

Millions of pinks that returned in local rivers during the 2015 summer season experienced drought-like conditions and elevated water temperatures in rivers, which led to many dying before even having a chance to spawn. Pinks return during odd-numbered years, and in the past have allowed for a bonus catch limit in marine and some river areas.

The Nisqually River forecast calls for 21,463 (down considerably from 979,298 in 2015 and 764,000 in 2013. With that said it is hard to fathom that a forecast didn’t even exist in this river system back in 2011.

Other pink forecasts include the Puyallup river system, 382,301 (837,967 in 2015 and 1.24-million in 2013); Green, which spills out into Elliott Bay, 118,689 (626,102 and 1.3-million); Skagit, 85,600 (603,385 and 1.23-million); Snohomish, 171,632 (1.6-million and 988,621); Nooksack, 96,218 (281,979 and 154,075); and Stillaguamish, 40,205 (210,062 and 409,700). The Hood Canal forecast this summer is 229,440.

The height of the pink fishery usually occurs at the end of July through August. In the past this has been an excellent fishery as pinks tend to hug the marine shoreline making them easily accessible to Puget Sound bank anglers as well.

Anglers in British Columbia on the Fraser River might be blushing if a pink forecast of 8,693,00 returns compared to more than 14.4-million pinks in 2015 and 8.9-million in 2013. Add to that another 4,432,000 sockeye to the Fraser as well. These fish could be easy game for anglers fishing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the U.S. side of the border as they intermingle with local stocks.

Another highlight in the Puget Sound region could be a Baker River sockeye forecast of 47,00 compared last year’s forecast of 55,054.

While it is hard to determine exactly what will come back it should be enough to consider some kind of summer sport fisheries in Baker Lake and possibly the Skagit River.

The Lake Washington forecast remains dismal with 77,292 compared to 119,125 last year and reflects since 2006 where runs have fallen well short of expectations. The current minimum goal of 350,000 is needed before any fisheries are considered, but state Fish and Wildlife and tribal fishery managers have indicated in the past it could be lowered to 200,000 if the run ever waxes expectations.

The Wenatchee River sockeye return of 54,200 could allow a sport fishery in Lake Wenatchee this coming summer if spawning escapement is achieved. The Okanogan River sockeye forecast is 137,000.

The Columbia River fall chinook forecast of 582,600 (951,300 was forecast last year with an actual return of 643,300) was announced this past week. The total return is similar to last year, which was the fourth largest on record, but substantially down from the huge returns from 2013 to 2015.

The lower river hatchery chinook stock of 92,400 and Bonneville Pool hatchery chinook stock of 158,400 – better known as “tule chinook” – are the most prized sport fish and a driving force in ocean fisheries off Ilwaco, Westport and at Buoy 10 near the Columbia River mouth.

“What is surprising is the tule return, which really contribute to the ocean fishery off Washington and Oregon, and it should be a pretty good season,” said Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “Based upon their numbers they must have done OK survival wise especially with the “blob” (a warm water condition that is nutrient poor and has adversely affected marine life in recent years) since they are near shore migratory fish.”

The tule are a lower river hatchery run, which is close to recent five-year average, and Bonneville Pool hatchery run that looks to be the second highest return since 2004.

Other chinook returns that should be decent are lower river wild stock forecast of 12,500 (22,200 was forecast and 13,000 was actual return in 2016); upriver bright chinook forecast of 260,000 (589,000 and 406,600); and pool upriver bright forecast of 42,100 (77,800 and 68,500).

The Select Area bright chinook return is forecast at 13,700 (15,800 and 6,700) is lsightly higher than the recent 10-year average of 12,500 fish. The Bonneville Upriver Bright chinook forecast is 3,500 (23,200 and 19,800), and only five-year-old fish are expected to return, whereas production has been shifted to hatchery facilities between Bonneville and McNary dams, and returns are included in the pool upriver bright stock.

Coastal salmon anglers have been relatively spoiled by very good fishing as fall chinook returns between 2013 and 2015 were at or well above record levels.

The all-time actual return record dating to 1938 was 1,268,400 adult chinook in 2013, which was 227 percent of the 2003-to-2012 average of 557,600 adult fish. In 2014, the actual return was 1,159,000, which was second-highest on record.

Meeting dates to set the salmon fishing seasons:

March 7-13: Pacific Fishery Management Council Meeting at Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth Street in Vancouver (PFMC adopts a range of ocean fishery options, including catch quotas for sport and commercial fisheries).

March 9: Grays Harbor Advisory Group Meeting (open to the public) 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; WDFW Region 6 Montesano Office, 48 Devonshire Road in Montesano (Discussion of management objectives and preliminary fishery options for Grays Harbor).

March 14: Willapa Bay Advisory Group Meeting (open to the public) 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Raymond High School Library, 1016 Commercial St. in Raymond (Discussion of management objectives and preliminary fishery options for Willapa Bay).

March 15: Puget Sound Recreational Fisheries Discussion 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; WDFW Mill Creek Office, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd. in Mill Creek (Public discussion of pre-season forecasts and possible salmon fisheries).

March 16: Puget Sound Recreational Fisheries Discussion 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Trinity Methodist Church, 100 South Black Ave., Sequim (Public discussion of pre-season forecasts and possible salmon fisheries).

March 17: First North of Falcon Meeting 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; General Administration Auditorium, 210 11th Ave. SW in Olympia (Discussion of management objectives and preliminary fishery proposals for sport and commercial fisheries in Puget Sound and coastal Washington, with limited discussion of the Columbia River and ocean fisheries).

March 23: Willapa Bay Public Meeting 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Raymond Elks, 326 Third St. in Raymond (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary options for Willapa Bay. Fishery management objectives and preliminary fishing opportunities for 2017 are discussed).

March 24: Columbia River and Ocean Fisheries Discussion 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Vancouver Water Resources Education Center, 4600 SE Columbia Way in Vancouver (Public meeting to present results of state-tribal negotiations and analyses of ocean and Columbia River fisheries proposals. With public participation, preferred seasons are developed for ocean and Columbia River area sport and commercial fisheries).

March 27: Public Hearing on Ocean Salmon Management Options 7 p.m.; Chateau Westport – Beach Room, 710 W. Hancock in Westport (Public hearing, sponsored by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, to receive comments on the proposed ocean salmon fishery management options adopted by the council during its early March meeting).

March 28: Mid-Columbia River Fisheries Discussion 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Chelan PUD, 327 N Wenatchee Ave. in Wenatchee (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary options for Columbia River sport fisheries).

March 28: Grays Harbor Fisheries Discussion 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Montesano City Hall, 112 N Main St. in Montesano (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary options for Grays Harbor. Fishery management objectives and preliminary fishing opportunities for 2017 are discussed).

March 29: Mid-Columbia/Snake Rivers Fisheries Discussion 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Walla Walla Community College, Clarkston Campus Auditorium, 1470 Bridge St. in Clarkston (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary options for Columbia River sport fisheries).
March 30: Columbia River Fisheries Discussion 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Benton PUD Auditorium, 2721 W. 10th Ave. in Kennewick (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary options for Columbia River fall commercial and sport fisheries).

March 30: Willapa Bay Fisheries Discussion 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Raymond High School Library, 1016 Commercial St. in Raymond (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary options for Willapa Bay. Fishery management objectives and preliminary fishing opportunities for 2017 are discussed).

April 4: North of Falcon Meeting 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Lynnwood Embassy Suites, 20610 44th Ave West in Lynnwood (Public meeting to present results of state-tribal negotiations and analyses of preliminary fishery proposals. With public participation, preferred options are developed for Puget Sound sport and commercial fisheries).

April 5: Columbia River/Ocean Fisheries Discussion 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Office Building 2 Auditorium, 1115 Washington Street SE in Olympia (Public discussion of management objectives and preliminary ocean options and possible commercial and recreational fisheries in the ocean and Columbia River).

April 7-12: Final Pacific Fishery Management Council Meeting at DoubleTree by Hilton Sacramento, 2001 Point West Way in Sacramento, Calif. (PFMC adopts final ocean fisheries regulations and state-tribal fishing plans are finalized for all inside area commercial and sport salmon fisheries).