Recreational and commercial salmon fishing off the coast of Washington could be shut down this summer because of a low number of returning coho salmon. The closure is one of three options being considered by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing seasons in ocean waters 3 to 200 miles off the Pacific coast.
The two other options, released early Monday would permit some salmon fishing this year.
Fishery biologists expect 380,000 Columbia River hatchery coho to return to the Washington coast this year, only about half of last year’s forecast. There were 242,000 coho that returned last year to the Columbia River, where some coho stocks are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Biologists are citing a lack of forage fish and warmer water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean “blob” and from El Nino as key factors in last year’s lower than expected return of coho.
It’s not what we want to see, since all the coastal fishing communities are dependent on tourism and our commercial fishers going out and catching salmon. Butch Smith, owner of CoHo Charters and Motel in Ilwaco
As for chinook, the forecast calls for a robust return of Columbia River fall chinook salmon this year. That includes about 223,000 lower river hatchery fish, which traditionally have been the backbone of the recreational ocean chinook fishery, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The last time the ocean salmon fishing season was closed was 1994. In 2008, fishing was severely curtailed.
“It’s not what we want to see, since all the coastal fishing communities are dependent on tourism and our commercial fishers going out and catching salmon. That’s our Microsoft and Boeing out here on the coast,” said Butch Smith, owner of CoHo Charters and Motel in Ilwaco. He also serves on a state advisory panel and was at the meeting in Sacramento where the ocean options were discussed.
Smith and Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, believe there are enough salmon to craft some sort of fishing season for 2016.
“From the recreational industry fishing perspective, we are in the circle of protecting the needs of wild coho,” Floor said. “Our hopes are in fishing for hatchery coho. There is no reason for us not to be pursuing hatchery coho.”
“There were far fewer coho and chinook in 1994, so I don’t think we are in a 1994 situation,” Smith said. “But we haven’t had an option like this for a very long time.”
Jim Unsworth, director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a news release the priority is protecting the diminished number of wild coho expected to return this year.
“We know that severely limiting opportunities will hurt many families and communities that depend on these fisheries,” he said in the release. “But conserving wild salmon is our top priority and is in the best interest of future generations of Washingtonians.”
Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said tribal and state co-managers must consider no fishing as they work during the next month to create fishing seasons.
“We hope it doesn’t come to that. Our cultures, treaty rights and economies depend on salmon. But the resource must come first,” she said in the news release. “We face an extraordinary conservation challenge this year. In many instances, returns will likely be far below minimum levels needed to produce the next generation of salmon. Conservation must be our sole focus as we work to rebuild these stocks.”
The process of setting salmon fishing seasons will conclude April 8-14 in Vancouver, Washington. At those meetings, the state and tribal co-managers will finalize fishing seasons for Puget Sound and the Columbia River, while the Pacific Fishery Management Council will choose among the three options for the ocean fishery.
Chuck Custer was running his charter boat Freedom out of Westport when fishing was closed in 1994.
“Its a huge impact. That’s our bread and butter,” he said. “We just did what we could. Went bottom fishing, tuna fishing, anything we could to keep going.”
Custer said a closure would impact about 40 charter boats operating out of Westport.
“When the salmon season is going, the town is going full tilt. (A closure) affects everybody, not just the charter boats. The restaurants and hotels need the fishermen. We’re all in it together.”
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640
Recreational ocean fishing options
Alternative 1: 58,600 chinook and 37,800 coho. This option includes early season fisheries, from June 18-30, for hatchery chinook in waters from Ilwaco to Neah Bay. It also allows hatchery coho retention in all four marine areas during the traditional summer fishery.
Alternative 2: 30,000 chinook and 14,700 coho. There would be no early season fishing for hatchery chinook, but allows summer chinook fishering in all four marine areas. Hatchery coho fishing would be allowed only in Marine Area 1 (Ilwaco).
Alternative 3: No commercial or recreational salmon fisheries in Washington’s ocean waters.
Last year’s quotas: 64,000 chinook and 150,800 coho salmon.
Learn more: For more details about the options, go to pcouncil.org.
Get involved: The public can comment on the proposed ocean alternatives as well as on other proposed salmon fisheries at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/northfalcon.