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For the third time in less than two weeks, talks between the state and tribal fishery managers broke down to develop a joint plan for salmon fisheries in Puget Sound, and an unprecedented closure of sport fisheries is looming in marine areas after April 30.

“We had one last round of negotiations in hopes of ensuring salmon seasons in Puget Sound this year,” Jim Unsworth, director of state Fish and Wildlife said in a news release. “Regrettably, we could not agree on fisheries that were acceptable to both parties.”

Both the state and tribes will now pursue federal permits through NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries, which are needed to conduct any salt- and fresh-water fisheries in Puget Sound.

This will lead to lots of uncertainty that a new fishing season which runs from May 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017 might happen for sport anglers and nontribal, commercial fishermen. Unless a last minute agreement is made, all fishing in Puget Sound will close after May 1 until further notice.

“I wouldn’t close the door, but it doesn’t seem like it will happen and the door remains open (for more discussions with the tribes),” said Ron Warren, the state Fish and Wildlife salmon policy manager. “The tribes and (state) in different ways offered packages that met the conservation objectives, but we couldn’t reach agreement on them.”

The talks this year have been complicated by forecasts for extremely poor returns of wild coho, which require harvest cuts to protect the weak runs, and the listing of Puget Sound chinook under the Endangered Species Act.

Tribal officials expect they could get a permit in time to conduct limited salmon harvests that do not target the wild coho.

“We are disappointed that we were unable to reach agreement with our state co-managers,” Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission said in a news release.

Puget Sound tribes collectively are entitled — under the 1974 Boldt decision — to half of all harvestable salmon. And each spring, state officials meet with 20 Puget Sound treaty tribes to come up with a joint management plan that is then submitted to federal fishery officials for approval.

“Discussions centered on a proposal from the Puyallup Tribe to the governor’s office and NOAA Fisheries that met management objectives for Puyallup, Nisqually and Mid-Hood Canal chinook populations under NOAA’s guidance document, though closed some fisheries, still provided harvest opportunities for both parties,” Fred Dillon, natural resources policy representative for the Puyallup Tribe said in a news release.

Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, left, guides his 21-foot boat during a fishing day with his brother Marty Cladoosby on the Skagit River’s North Fork. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, left, guides his 21-foot boat during a fishing day with his brother Marty Cladoosby on the Skagit River’s North Fork. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

But it is unclear whether the state plan could gain approval in time for summer sport and non-tribal commercial fisheries or for that matter much of the 2016-17 season.

NOAA officials charged with approving salmon fisheries have said that a separate tribal harvest plan could gain quicker approval then a state harvest plan for recreational and nontribal commercial fisheries.

During talks on Wednesday, state Fish and Wildlife proposed salmon fisheries that allowed anglers to harvest chinook while protecting coho, which are expected to return in low numbers this year.

The state’s proposed fisheries met conservation goals that they and the tribes had previously agreed upon, Unsworth said.

The talks broke down during the annual salmon-season setting meetings on April 8-14, and last week they also came to a halt when both parties couldn’t come to terms.

The silver lining despite not coming to terms is that both parties agreed at the Wednesday meeting to develop plans to bolster salmon stocks as well as improve the season-setting process.

“The upside is most of the Puget Sound tribes as well as the state all commented on the importance of co-management and the need to fix the process and a commitment to do that,” Warren said. “It seems we needed that silver lining.”

What is needed is commitment of the state co-manager to a long term strategy to increase production of both hatchery and wild salmon, Loomis said in the news release, adding that habitat must be at the center of the effort.

“We want to work with the tribes to address long-term resource management concerns, such as restoring habitat and increasing hatchery fish production,” Unsworth said. “The breakdown in this year’s negotiations demonstrates the need for a change to the process of setting salmon-fishing seasons.”

State Fish and Wildlife has lots to think about in the days ahead, but are looking at what possible salmon fisheries could still occur this summer, fall and winter, including those unaffected by coho impacts such as the Baker Lake sockeye fishery. The state plans to talk with their sport fishing constituents later this week as to where they’re headed on those types of fisheries.

While the breakdown in talks leaves recreational fisheries at risk, a federal fishery council last week approved limited ocean-salmon harvests off the coast.

The fishing is set to begin July 1 at Ilwaco, Westport, La Push and Neah Bay.

The council set the overall sport and nontribal catch this season at 35,000 chinook (64,000 last year) and 18,900 hatchery-marked coho (150,800).