Salmon at ‘scary’ low levels in area rivers as fishing season opens on the Puyallup

Jonathan Shannon-Cordoba, 16, and Nathaniel Patrick DocTrov, 15, arrived with their friends at the Puyallup river at 4 a.m. Thursday. The Spanaway teens were on a mission: to catch their first fish the morning that the salmon season opened.

Hundreds of fishermen lined the banks and waded into the waist-high water of the Puyallup on Thursday under a bright and cloudless sky. The first day of fishing season in the two-year salmon run cycle brought young and old alike to the river.

DocTrov has fished in the Puyallup for years. He learned to fish with his father and has loved the sport ever since.

“I watched my dad fish, and I learned the same excitement of it,” he said, then laughed. “I’m pretty sure I like fishing more than him now.”

Thursday marked the first day Shannon-Cordoba had fished in the Puyallup. He’d started learning to fish with friends about three months ago, he said. The learning process is hard, but he said he enjoys it.

“It’s difficult. I’ve got a few bites, but I haven’t been able to reel them in yet,” he said, but he loves the experience.

“Sitting out there, the fish literally come up against your legs,” he said with excitement.

DocTrov said the salmon season seems good this year.

“This year there’s a whole bunch of pinks and kings,” he said. “I’d say this is probably one of the better years.”

Tara Livingood, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s area biologist for Pierce County, is less positive about the salmon forecast.

Around 1,800 wild chinook are expected to come back to the Puyallup this year, along with 13,000 hatchery chinook. The forecast for pink salmon, she said, is especially low this year.

“We’ve projected around 48,000,” she said, but added that the number could go up to about 100,000.

She said it’s concerning to see numbers that low, especially when several years ago, around 380,000 pink salmon were predicted to return to the Puyallup River.

Pink salmon levels also are predicted to be very low in the Nisqually River this year, something Livingood says she’s concerned about. Around 25,000 are predicted to return.

“We’re not seeing them. It’s scary,” she said.

The reasons for the low levels of pink salmon can be traced back to environmental factors.

“There was a pretty significant drought in 2015, leading to high temperatures in the water,” Livingood said.

The less rain, the lower the water. The shallower the water, the warmer it gets, and the harder it is for pink salmon to thrive.

Livingood stressed her concern about the low numbers of coho salmon this year, especially of natural origin.

About 33,000 coho are predicted to return to the Puyallup river, but 98% will be from a hatchery.

“Only 1,000 of natural origin are predicted,” she said.

The low levels of coho in the Puyallup also are due to environmental factors, she said. Levees and dikes have taken away much of the coho’s natural habitat.

“They don’t have the capability to deal with the stress,” she said.

Restoration efforts are underway to improve the coho’s habitat, but much still needs to be accomplished to help bring back higher levels of the salmon, Livingood said.

The fisherman on the Puyallup Thursday were unfazed by the low predictions.

Liviu Chirica, 19, and his friends, Emanuel Lesan, 17, and Petru Scheau, 22, all said that this year seems to be a good salmon year so far.

“Today I’ve seen so many people catch kings,” Chirica said, mentioning that in his four hours at the river that morning, he’d seen three people catch chinook, something he rarely sees happen.

The beautiful day reminded people what they love about the sport.

“I love fishing, that’s just me,” Chirica said. “I can stay here for days and I never get bored.”