A guide to the salmon season setting process: North of Falcon

Each year from about February to April, state, federal and tribal fishery managers gather to plan the Northwest’s recreational and commercial salmon fisheries. This salmon season-setting process is known as North of Falcon (NOF) — a name that refers to waters north of Oregon’s Cape Falcon, which marks the southern border of Washington’s management of salmon stocks. This includes Puget Sound, Columbia River, and coastal Washington stocks.

What guides North of Falcon?

While this process focuses on Washington salmon stocks, it plays out on a much bigger stage, as salmon species migrate throughout the Pacific Ocean and are intercepted in fisheries from California up to Alaska. With this in mind, a few governmental policies help to guide the NOF process:

  • The Boldt Decision (1974): upheld by the Supreme Court and based upon treaties with the Puget Sound Treaty tribes to allow the state and tribes to manage their own fisheries (co-managers) and share half of the harvestable salmon.
  • · U.S. v. Oregon: established a similar 50 percent division of salmon between the states and tribes of the Columbia River basin, and ensured cooperative co-management of shared waters of the Columbia River that form the border between Washington and Oregon.
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries ensures the planned fisheries continue to support ESA-listed species such as Puget Sound Chinook (listed in 1999) or Southern Resident orcas (listed in 2005). ESA guidelines strictly limit the number of impacts to numerous fish runs throughout the state, underlying much of the salmon season-setting process.
  • Pacific Salmon Treaty (U.S./Canada): helps ensure enough fish destined for the southern U.S. pass through Canadian waters to support recreational angling and enough fish for the spawning grounds (and vice versa for fish returning to Canada).
  • Conservation objectives: Measures that the co-managers agree on to ensure enough fish get past fisheries and reach rivers to spawn and sustain or recover the population.
  • Commission policy: The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission sets policy for WDFW. In 2019, the Commission updated its NOF policy, which directed fishery managers to consider the Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon for food, when proposing fisheries.
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International and multi-state salmon management processes concurrent with North of Falcon.

At the core of the North of Falcon process is a fierce commitment to cooperation, fostering a solution-oriented environment that moves natural resource management, protection, and restoration efforts forward. Throughout the process, WDFW and tribal co-managers work together to prioritize salmon conservation, listen to one another’s needs, seek solutions, communicate, use the best available science to inform decisions, and accurately document, share and react to important data.

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Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chair Lorraine Loomis and WDFW Director Kelly Susewind

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chair Lorraine Loomis and WDFW Director Kelly Susewind

What goes into the forecasts?

The start of the North of Falcon process is primed first by the hard work of WDFW research scientists who analyze extensive scientific data to inform expectations for this year’s run forecasts. We do this with a suite of tools, such as monitoring and sampling fisheries throughout the year, as well as other metrics, including:

  • Ocean indicators — Typically released in December ahead of the North of Falcon process, NOAA Fisheries’ stoplight chart is a tool fishery managers up and down the West Coast use to guide their understanding of how salmon might fare out in the open ocean. Now in its 23rd year, the stoplight chart conveys physical, chemical, and biological ocean data off the Washington and Oregon coasts and informs environmental indicators that researchers use to study ocean conditions, climate change impacts, and marine survival. This annual assessment is released each year in December — visit NOAA’s website for the 2020 summary.
  • Sibling models — Sibling models use the survival of younger fish that have returned from a group to estimate the survival of future returns. Essentially, if your brothers and sisters fared pretty well last season, your chances of survival could be just as good. Some of the tools and data that informs sibling models include river surveys, coded wire tags (a unique tag to identify a batch of fish), fish scales, and ear bones. With these metrics, fishery managers can look at previous years’ data to begin to make an assessment about how this year’s season might shake out.

What are the North of Falcon steps?

Infographic depicting the timeline for North of Falcon process
Infographic depicting the timeline for North of Falcon process

How can I get involved?

Public engagement is a critical part of this process and we have a number of ways for folks to get involved.

As part of this process, we invite members of the public to:

  • Tune in and provide comments during a public meeting. Find a schedule of upcoming North of Falcon public meetings on our website.
  • Starting in early March, provide comments on proposed seasons. WDFW will also take public comments in June on the proposed regulations package that comes from North of Falcon negotiations.

Have a question about North of Falcon? You might consider sharing it with our team of research scientists, fish biologists, and fishery managers by sending us a note at fishpgm@wdfw.wa.gov.

To learn more about the North of Falcon process, visit us online at wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/management/north-falcon.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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