Conserving salmon for the future: San Juan Islands not reopening to salmon fishing this fall

We recognize anglers’ commitment to salmon conservation and the sacrifices they make to help preserve this resource. Late this summer, WDFW fishery managers made the hard decision not to reopen the San Juan Islands to salmon fishing, following high angler success during a mid-summer fishery.

The San Juan Islands are both a picturesque destination for anglers and a hot spot for salmon stocks of concern under the Endangered Species Act, including the Stillaguamish Chinook, Snohomish coho, and Fraser River salmon stocks, all of which spend time in the waters around the San Juans.

When the San Juan Islands Chinook season kicked off in early July, more than the full month’s quota — and 185 percent of the total summer quota — was soon taken in just one week. WDFW fishery managers quickly closed the fishery to support conservation and future fishing opportunities. We understand how much people look forward to fishing these waters and committed to reevaluating whether fishing for coho and pink salmon could reopen later in the summer while remaining within management guidelines for Chinook incidentally caught and released.

In reviewing stock assessments and port sampling data later this summer, fishery managers saw that the popular July fishery exceeded modeled impacts, or fish mortalities, by more than 70 percent for marked Chinook salmon from the Stillaguamish hatchery recovery program. Stillaguamish River hatchery fish play an important role in salmon recovery by supplementing the number of fish returning to the spawning grounds.

A mark-selective fishery refers to a fishing season with unique regulations that allows anglers to retain hatchery fish, while releasing the wild fish. WDFW hatcheries use state-of-the-art facilities and technology to mark millions of juvenile salmon each year. Clipping the adipose fins of these hatchery fish, whether they are from harvest programs or conservation/recovery programs, ensures they can be visually recognized when they are caught in fisheries or seen returning to a hatchery or natural spawning grounds. It also ensures they will be sampled for coded-wire tags in fisheries throughout their migration, allowing fishery managers to understand where each population migrates and how they are impacted by fisheries from Alaska to British Columbia to the contiguous United States.

This supports the harvest of hatchery fish while minimizing impacts to wild salmon and maintaining our commitments to recovery. While the impacts to Chinook incidentally caught and released during a future pink and coho salmon fishery would be minimal, it would simply too much of an impact when there isn’t any harvestable quota of Chinook available. We can’t forget that the reason there isn’t more harvestable quota, is because there are so few fish available from constraining Chinook runs.

Marked fish play an important role, even when we can’t fish and harvest them. They can help to mitigate habitat loss and support conservation measures by supplying broodstock for future salmon returns and providing a food source for endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

Based on what we’ve seen unfold this summer, fishery managers continue to assess the structure for this fishery going forward. They can use this information now and particularly during the salmon season setting process, which occurs each winter and spring. Commonly referred to as North of Falcon (NOF), this process brings state, federal and tribal fishery managers together to plan the Northwest’s recreational and commercial salmon fisheries. You can learn more about NOF and opportunities to provide feedback, on WDFW’s website.

We know that short seasons are not popular. Half the joy of fishing is just getting outdoors with friends and family with a line in the water whether you’re catching anything or not. When the fishing is slow, the season is long.

It’s hard to know exactly why so many people were out fishing and why the fishing was so hot in July and it exceeded our pre-season planning, but we do know that even when quotas are low, we can consider how we structure future seasons (where the impact have not yet been realized) to find ways to make the fishing opportunity — and days on the water — last.

In the meantime, we appreciate your continued commitment to angling and conservation and hope to see you out on the water here soon. To share any comments or questions with fishery managers, please connect with us at fishpgm@dfw.wa.gov.

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

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