State Fish and Wildlife director Jim Unsworth and Governor Jay Inslee’s senior policy member JT Austin met Monday with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission representatives after negotiations to set salmon seasons were suspended last week.
“The talks (Monday) were a step in the right direction, and we will continue to see if we can come to an understanding,” said Ron Warren, the state Fish and Wildlife salmon policy lead coordinator.
The parties were set to reconvene Tuesday at the Little Creek Casino in Shelton to resume discussions, and bridge the gap on sticking points that could lead to an agreement on Puget Sound sport, non-tribal and tribal salmon fisheries for the 2016-17 seasons.
“They are still talking about restarting negotiations, but they have not restarted negotiations and no decision has been made,” said Tony Meyer, the communications manager for Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
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State fishery managers also had a joint conference call Monday afternoon with their sport-fishing constituents to provide an update on issues and developments.
This comes on the heels of very poor coho returns this year, which puts this year’s Puget Sound sport, tribal and non-tribal commercial salmon season at risk unless a resolution can be made by the end of this month.
After days of meetings in Vancouver, 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.
According to Unsworth, both state and tribes offered to conserve fish, but there were issues they were unable to resolve.
If no agreement is reached by the end of April, the state could try to come up with a separate management plan that would be submitted to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries – the federal agency that provides 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.
A federal fishery council did approve limited ocean salmon harvests off Washington’s coast last week in Vancouver.
The council set the overall sport catch this season at 35,000 chinook and 18,900 hatchery-marked coho. Last year’s catch was 64,000 chinook and 150,800 hatchery-marked coho.
The only fishing area where anglers will be able to target hatchery-marked coho this summer is Ilwaco. Other areas will be limited to just chinook.
On the northern coast, the Neah Bay sport fishery will be open daily for chinook salmon only from July 1 through Aug. 21 or until a catch quota of 6,200 chinook is achieved. Catch limit is two salmon daily, with no retention of coho and no chum beginning Aug. 1. Also beginning Aug. 1 there is no chinook retention east of the Bonilla-Tatoosh line. Chinook minimum size limit is 24 inches long.
Just south at La Push the fishing season will be open daily from July 1 through Aug. 21, with a catch quota of 2,000 chinook. Catch limit is two salmon daily with no retention of coho. Chinook minimum size limit is 24 inches.
On the south-central coast, Westport will be open July 1 through Aug. 21, with a catch quota of 16,600 chinook. Catch limit is one salmon daily with no retention. Chinook minimum size limit is 24 inches.
Ilwaco on the southern coast will be open July 1 through Aug. 31 with a catch quota of 10,200 chinook and 18,900 hatchery-marked coho. Catch limit is two salmon daily, and no more than one may be a chinook. Chinook minimum size limit is 24 inches.
The popular Buoy-10 salmon fishery at the Columbia River mouth will open Aug. 1,with an expected catch of 20,000 hatchery-marked coho in August and September.
The forecast this summer calls for 549,200 coho to arrive off the Washington-Oregon coast, compared to a preseason forecast of 1,015,000 last year and an actual return of 322,100.
The Columbia River forecast last year was 777,100, but less than a third actually returned – 242,300. Poor ocean conditions and a lack of feed were the likely culprits.
The only highlight this summer is an expected Columbia River fall chinook return of 951,300, which would be the fourth largest on record dating back to 1938.
Talks have grown increasingly contentious in recent years. In a conference call with state officials last Thursday, some sport-angler representatives told state officials they would prefer to sit out the season rather than agree to tribal proposals being offered.
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.
Tribal officials say they have proposed numerous conservation cuts, including shutting down some of the ceremonial fisheries that targeted coho. The tribes say state officials failed to come up with acceptable cuts to the harvests they manage.
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 return 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 co-management of the Puget Sound fishery runs.
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 last year in an unhealthy state.
(Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this story)