There was plenty of news to come out of Tuesday’s meeting at which the state Department of Fish and Wildlife released the salmon run forecasts this year.
One of the big items was the decline in the number of pink salmon coming back. The Puget Sound forecast of 1.15 million pinks is down 80 percent from the 10-year-average.
Such a decline might put a crimp in the number of fishing licenses and gear sold for what is a very popular fishery in the South Sound.
But department staffers and individuals had plenty to talk about. Here are some of the highlights.
Ocean conditions improving: A number of indicators show that ocean conditions for salmon survival are improving. Marisa Litz gave a presentation that looked at El Nino, La Nina, the warm blob and other factors that affected fish stocks since 2014.
“It feels like we’re now back in a normal pattern, which should last at least through the spring,” she said of weather patterns and ocean water temperatures.
All this is good news for the salmon that are still in the ocean.
“The smolts and sub-adults in the ocean now will benefit from the improved conditions and we’ll see those fish return in the next two years,” she added.
The same warm water issues are also partially to blame for the algae blooms that have caused the state to close beaches during razor clam digs. Improving ocean conditions could mean fewer closures the rest of the season.
The winter’s snowfall will also help salmon during the freshwater portion of their early lifecycle. Snowpack numbers are at or above normal for many key drainages, meaning there will be plenty of water when fish eggs begin hatching.
That is well above the data for 2015, when snowpack numbers were around 64 percent and lower at this time of year.
Chinook encounters and derbies: With fishing in many Puget Sound areas having limited chinook encounters — the number of fish hooked, whether kept or released – some people are questioning the impact salmon derbies are having on fishing seasons.
The number of encounters for each marine area is negotiated by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and tribal co-managers. The intent is to limit the number of hooked fish to protect those chinook runs that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Tony Floor of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, which sponsors the 15-event Northwest Salmon Derby Series, said the number of encounters is a legitimate issue.
He pointed to the Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby that ran Feb. 17-19 in Gardiner. The 208 chinook caught, and the estimated number of released fish, could have accounted for 10 percent of that area’s limit of encounters.
Floor hopes the state can negotiate larger encounter numbers, thanks in part to better forecasts, so fishing seasons do not have to be shut down early.
Final negotiations: While little was said at Tuesday’s meeting, many on hand were worried about the demeanor of this year’s negotiations between the state and tribes.
Last year’s talks broke down during the final North of Falcon meetings when the state refused some of the tribal requests. The stalemate led to a delay for recreational salmon fishing seasons, while tribal fisheries were allowed to proceed — following intervention by some federal agencies.
While state Fish and Wildlife staffers have publically expressed that talks have started sooner and are proceeding better than last year, many recreational anglers have a wait-and-see attitude.
Looking ahead: Recreational anglers should expect some limits on salmon fishing because, overall, salmon runs are predicted to be about average or below average.
The good news is there is little concern as there was last year when some forecasts called for historically low numbers for some salmon stocks.
According to the initial run predictions, 559,000 coho salmon are expected to return to Puget Sound this year. That is down about 6 percent when compared to the 10-year-average.
For chinook salmon, the number of wild fish expected to return to the Sound is down 10 percent compared with last year, while the number of hatchery chinook is up 27 percent from last year at 166,000 fish.
The state and tribal co-managers are expecting about 250,000 hatchery chinook to return this year to the lower Columbia River, almost 124,000 more fish than returned last year. Known as tules, these salmon are the backbone of the recreational ocean chinook fishery.
In the South Sound, the state will continue to manage the winter chum fishery on the Nisqually River conservatively. James Losee, district fish biologist, said many of those fish are being caught in fisheries at the mouth of the river. The river was closed to fishing last winter because the run was so low, and another low run is expected this winter.
With Tuesday’s meeting, the clock is now ticking toward April 7-11 when state, tribal and federal fishing officials will meet in Sacramento, California. That’s when talks between the tribes and state should result in fishing seasons for Puget Sound, coastal rivers and the Columbia River. At the same time, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will decide on season setups for ocean fisheries.
A meeting schedule, detailed salmon forecasts and information about the salmon season-setting process are available at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/northfalcon.