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Ocean salmon fishing seasons were finalized at the Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Vancouver Thursday that put a heavy emphasis on protecting forecasted poor coho returns.

“As the result of the breakdown in negotiations in Puget Sound fishing seasons, thankfully Washington salmon anglers will have a good opportunity for quality chinook fishing from Ilwaco to Neah Bay,” said Tony Floor, the director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association in Seattle. “If you don’t have a boat trailer today you better buy one soon.”

The overall sport catch this season is 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, and all 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 long.

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 long.

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 long.

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.

On the other hand these are extremely difficult times for Puget Sound anglers who are heading into murky, unchartered waters.

In an unprecedented move, state and tribal fishery managers didn’t reach an agreement on setting the 2016-17 Puget Sound salmon fishing seasons.

“The state in collaboration with the recreational fishing community provided the tribes very early in the (salmon season setting) process a responsible and sound conservation package that recognized the very poor coho returns,” said Pat Pattillo, who spent 38 years as the state Fish and Wildlife salmon policy coordinator and is now a spokesman for 10 sport-fishing organizations.

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 lead to a reduction of 50- to 80-percent less time on the water than last year.

The package proposed by the state had a brief summer hatchery chinook fishery in Strait of Juan de Fuca, and central and northern Puget Sound – also known by anglers as Marine Catch Areas 5, 6, 9 and 10. It also had some summer fisheries in the San Juan Islands, Hood Canal, and south-central and southern Puget Sound, and winter fisheries in other parts of Puget Sound.

Salmon anglers will have a chance in late summer to catch nice kings like this at Buoy-10 on the Lower Columbia River mouth. Photo by Mark Yuasa, Seattle Times staff reporter.
Salmon anglers will have a chance in late summer to catch nice kings like this at Buoy-10 on the Lower Columbia River mouth. Photo by Mark Yuasa, Seattle Times staff reporter.

In order to protect expected poor Puget Sound coho returns, all fisheries would have anglers releasing coho in just about every marine area during the late summer and fall when coho are most present.

“Everyone recognized the extraordinary restrictions to sport fisheries would be necessary so the recreational community was squarely behind the department (state Fish and Wildlife) and (state Fish and Wildlife director) Jim Unsworth in purposing a sport fishery package with conservation in mind,” Pattillo said.

“The process that brings the state and tribes together hasn’t served the co-management process well this year, and unfortunately we are aware that it did not result in agreement to fisheries at this time,” Pattillo said. “There is still an opportunity to provide those fisheries. The shortcomings of this year’s process indicate a real strong need for changes in the annual system for setting salmon seasons.”

Tribal officials, in statement released by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, took a starkly different view of the Puget Sound talks.

In effort to protect weak stocks, they say that they proposed numerous conservation cuts, including shutting down some of the ceremonial fisheries that targeted coho — and for three tribes on the Skagit River- foregoing all coho fishing except for a small research catch conducted by tribal biologist.

But they say that the state failed to come with acceptable cuts with the harvests they manage.

Skokomish tribal fishermen use beach seines to round up chum salmon on Hood Canal.
Skokomish tribal fishermen use beach seines to round up chum salmon on Hood Canal.

“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.”

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 the state would face should it submit a separate plan, according to Bob Turner, a NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator who outlined the approval processes in a Jan. 19 letter to state and tribal officials.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission that Loomis chairs was created in the aftermath of the landmark 1974 Boldt decision in federal court. That ruling reaffirmed tribal rights to shares of the harvestable salmon that return each year and established tribal co-management of the Puget Sound fishery runs.

The commission has 20 tribal members whose harvests encompass both smaller ceremonial and subsistence catches as well as commercial fisheries in bays near the mouths of fresh water river where the specific runs of salmon are returning to spawn.

The no fishing comes on the heels of a Puget Sound forecast this year of 255,944 coho (168,585 are hatchery and 87,359 are wild) compared to last year’s 891,855 (421,626 and 470,229).

The main wild coho concerns are in the Skagit (13,859 forecast and 140,901 forecast last year); the Stillaguamish (2,770 and 31,263); Green (8,970 and 68,449); Snohomish (37,365 and 205,420); Lake Washington (4,414 and 25,749); and Puyallup (9,182 and 40,334) river systems.

Signs of a poor coho run started to come to light last summer when despite a rather robust coho forecast of 891,854 less than 250,000 returned to rivers and streams. And the coho managed to make it back were much smaller in size and in poor health.

A lot of this is attributed to the bad ocean conditions and warm water temperatures that lead to a dramatic drop in the base of the food chain that salmon and forage fish need to grow. Coho that migrated into the Pacific Ocean ran head-on into “The Blob” a warm ocean current that drifted as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and proved a detriment to coho that either didn’t survive or came back in an unhealthy state.

(Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this story. A more in-depth version will run in The Seattle Times Saturday edition.)