Four big questions from this year’s North of Falcon
Every year, fishery managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) gather with the public, tribal co-managers, other states, and federal regulators to set salmon seasons in Washington, in a process known as North of Falcon (a reference to Cape Falcon in Oregon, which marks the southernmost border of Washington’s salmon management).
And while the North of Falcon process is similar every year, the salmon seasons often are not. They can change significantly from one year to the next, depending how many fish are projected to return to individual rivers, and strict limits for how many fish can be caught if a threatened or endangered salmon stock might be present as returns to different rivers mingle in Puget Sound.
As a result, there are always a handful of questions that emerge as the forecasts are released and salmon seasons are developed. Here are some of the questions from this year’s process so far.
There’s still time to provide input on this year’s fisheries; visit our public input page to submit comments online, call in for daily updates from the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) public meeting in the first week of April, or view information from meetings so far this spring.
What’s happening with Skagit River coho?
While coho returning to Washington’s rivers are expected to be up in many parts of the state in 2023 compared to 2022, there is a notable exception: the Skagit River. There, the expected return of 43,146 natural-origin (wild) coho is only a little more than half of last year’s forecast of 80,378 fish.
Coho typically spend about a year and a half in the ocean before returning to their home rivers. In the Skagit, the estimate for adults returning in 2023 was about half that of the previous two broods. There are a few possible causes for this sharp decline, including low flows and record-breaking heat in the summer of 2021 that would have impacted juvenile coho rearing in the river, followed by historic flooding that occurred in the Skagit and surrounding watersheds that fall, which may have also impacted juvenile survival.
As a result, Skagit coho fisheries are expected to be limited in 2023, with fishing restricted to hatchery coho only; managers are proposing a 2-fish combined limit for pink and coho.
The Nooksack River also likely saw some impacts from the 2021 floods, but the decline isn’t projected to be as drastic in that watershed; the coho season there is expected to look similar to 2022.
Will Stillaguamish Chinook still restrict Puget Sound fisheries in 2023?
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer: Stillaguamish Chinook have been one of the most restricting stocks in Puget Sound for a number of years. That means that when Stillaguamish Chinook are believed to be present in the Sound, it can drastically reduce fishing on other stocks as managers work to minimize impacts to this depressed run.
WATCH: Into the Stillaguamish: A small river with a huge impact
It’s true that more Chinook are expected to return to the Stillaguamish in 2023 compared to 2022. In fact, the forecast calls for more than double the number of natural-origin (wild) fish to return in 2023. But that number is still worryingly low. In 2022, the forecast called for 342 natural-origin Chinook; in 2023, that number is still only 710 fish.
While the additional fish do provide fishery managers some flexibility, that number is still not high enough to trigger an increase in the “exploitation rate” — that is, the proportion of a stock’s abundance that can be impacted by fishing — allowed under the Endangered Species Act. With an increased abundance of Stillaguamish Chinook present in the Sound, the likelihood of encountering one of those fish increases, meaning the same amount of fishery activity could result in more impacts to those Chinook.
As a result, fisheries occurring south of Canada are expected to be limited to fewer than 100 impacts on Stillaguamish Chinook in 2023 — and probably closer to 90 — which is most likely to restrict winter Chinook fisheries where Stillaguamish fish might be present, as managers work to prioritize summer fisheries to maximize opportunity for the greatest number of anglers.
These fish would be caught only as incidental impacts while anglers are targeting other healthier hatchery stocks. There is no targeted fishery for Stillaguamish Chinook.
Why is the return of Chinook salmon to the Elwha River expected to be down?
The removal of the Elwha dam in 2014 was part of a major effort to restore the natural-origin Chinook salmon population in the upper portion of the river. But in 2023, the number of fish forecast to return to the mouth of the Elwha is 2,799, of which 129 are natural-origin, compared to the 2022 forecast of 4,076 fish (183 natural-origin).
Chinook can stay out at sea anywhere from 2–5 years, but many return in the 3- to 4-year timeframe. In 2022, fishery managers saw a low number of 3-year-old Chinook returning to the river, meaning that trend is likely to extend into the 4-year returns as well. Additionally, the vast majority of the Chinook returning to the Elwha are hatchery fish, and releases in 2020 were low at fewer than 1 million fish, likely further impacting returns this year.
Returns to the Elwha will likely continue to fluctuate in the coming years, as the Chinook population there continues rebuilding throughout the river.
Will there be bonus limits for pink salmon this year?
Pink salmon return to Puget Sound in odd-number years, and nearly 4 million humpies are expected to return in 2023, a slight increase over 2021. These fish offer some excellent fishing opportunity throughout Puget Sound and peak around August, bolstering some runs of both coho and Chinook.
In past years, fisheries in some marine areas offered “bonus limits” for pink salmon — that is, anglers could catch their limit of coho or Chinook and then also keep fishing for pink salmon and keep a separate limit of those fish.
But continuing to fish for pink salmon still runs the risk of encountering Chinook or coho, and some of those fish will die even if they’re caught and immediately released. Compounded with continued declines in Puget Sound stocks, those encounters from fishing for pink salmon became increasingly problematic.
As a result, marine areas in 2023 will not feature those bonus limits, with pink salmon instead considered part of the total salmon catch. This isn’t the first year without bonus limits; similar restrictions were in place during the 2021–2022 season due to concern over Puget Sound coho stocks.
Pink salmon limits in freshwater will vary by watershed; the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers are both expected to offer some pink opportunity, while the Nooksack will not see a pink fishery in 2023 due to brood loss from the historic flood event in fall 2021.