Puget Sound town hall meeting draws many to discuss challenges facing recreational salmon fisheries

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) held a Puget Sound salmon town hall on Jan. 30 to discuss a range of topics related to recreational salmon fisheries.

The town hall provided valuable insight to the challenges of marine area mixed-stock salmon fisheries; a recap of 2023 summer salmon fisheries; updates on the Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan; the status of the Stillaguamish payback provision; an early 2024 salmon fishing outlook; and a presentation on ocean conditions. The meeting wrapped up with public input to ask questions and get feedback on fisheries.

“We were intending to reach a wider audience of constituents who are new to salmon fishing or have not followed the process we go through each year,” said Mark Baltzell, the WDFW salmon manager.

The town hall can be viewed on the WDFW’s YouTube channel. The two-and-a-half hour meeting attracted 215 individual viewers including a peak of 175 viewers. Meeting materials are available by clicking on the meeting agenda, PowerPoint presentation and salmon fisheries FAQs and glossary.

Most questions from the public were tied to the 2023 summer salmon fishing opportunities in Marine Area 7 (San Juan Islands), Marine Area 11 (Tacoma-Vashon Island), and Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton Area).

“WDFW had to make some difficult decisions on salmon fishing opportunity in the 2023 summer seasons in Puget Sound, particularly in Marine Area 11,” Baltzell said. “We felt it was important to continue to try to inform people about the complexity of management and the challenges we face in any given year trying to put anglers on the water.”

The poor Stillaguamish Chinook return also remains at the forefront of issues regarding constraints on Puget Sound fisheries. However, the Stillaguamish isn’t the only hot topic, and due to the vast number of watersheds within Puget Sound, there is a high likelihood that other salmon returns could be the focus of how fisheries are shaped annually.

More information on restoration and recovery efforts for the Stillaguamish River are available on this webpage.

The annual statewide salmon forecast meeting is March 1 at the Office Building 2 Auditorium, 1115 Washington Street S.E. in Olympia.

Salmon forecasts are developed by WDFW and tribal co-managers. Fishery managers use a suite of scientific data, including watershed sampling and monitoring, ocean indicators, and previous year returns, to estimate the number of salmon and steelhead that will return annually to Northwest waters, and how many fish will be available for harvest.

That meeting, part of the season-setting process known as North of Falcon, is just one of more than a dozen in-person, hybrid and virtual meetings scheduled in the coming months to discuss salmon fisheries across Washington. North of Falcon refers to waters north of Oregon’s Cape Falcon, which marks the southern border of management of Washington’s salmon stocks, including Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Columbia River, and coastal areas.

This process also occurs in tandem with Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) public meetings to establish salmon fishing seasons in ocean waters three to 200 nautical miles off the Pacific coast. The PFMC will discuss preliminary options for ocean fisheries during its March 5–11 meeting and is expected to adopt final fishing seasons and harvest levels at its April 6–11 meeting. Meeting information is available on PFMC’s website.

A full timeline of the 2024 public meeting schedule is available on the WDFW’s North of Falcon public meeting webpage. Click here to view the WDFW Sound Management: Conserving Pacific Northwest salmon through cooperation video.

At the conclusion of the town hall meeting, Baltzell said, “it was clear that there are still questions about how we manage these seasons and a desire from the public for more opportunities to connect. It is likely something we will re-evaluate following this year’s fisheries.”

Questions and answers from the Puget Sound salmon town hall

Question: How is mortality rate determined in marine areas based off encounters? How come there aren’t more catch-and-release opportunities in Puget Sound? Especially in the wintertime to supplement blackmouth fishing (a term used for a Chinook salmon’s black gumline, traditionally referring to winter-spring resident Chinook fisheries).

Answer: Mortality rates in marine areas for each stock are determined using the Fishery Regulation Assessment Model (FRAM) model. The FRAM estimates the stock-composition of fish encountered using historic coded wire-tag recovery information. Additional information related to how FRAM parses fishery encounters into mortality estimates is available in this story map here.

In recent years, Chinook management goals have indicated a limited number of “loss of fish” (referred to as impacts) for key salmon stocks. Catch-and-release opportunities have mortality (a term used for the death of many fish) associated with them and can be explored as a potential option, but any loss of fish used for those opportunities would not be available in retention fisheries and their impacts need to be accounted for within our overall exploitation rate for each stock.

Question: How do encounters of salmon impact harvest of salmon? Is an encounter the same as a harvest of a salmon?

Answer: A salmon encounter is defined as any fish that is retained or released in a fishery. Some of the fish released in a fishery die because of being hooked and released, meaning that it is important to track how many fish are being encountered even if they are not harvested. A harvest is defined as any fish that is retained in a fishery.

This includes sub-legal-size Chinook under the 22-inch minimum size limit, and a jack, which is a male salmon that returns to spawn one year earlier and are smaller in size than their adult salmon counterparts and sub-legal-size fish.

Question: How do you calculate your catch and angler effort numbers as so many boats are coming from different marine areas?

Answer: The Puget Sound Sampling Unit (PSSU) conducts boat surveys, which calculates the total effort for any fishery on a given day. In Marine Area 6 (East Juan de Fuca Strait) and Marine Area 7 (San Juan Islands), they will do aerial surveys in lieu of boat surveys because the areas are so large, and a boat survey would not effectively cover the area. Creel surveys also include information on areas fished. This is especially important for docks and boat launches that serve as access to multiple areas.

Question: Why does Marine Area 7 (San Juan Islands) — the largest marine area in the Puget Sound management area — have the smallest quota and shortest number of days open for Chinook fishing?

Answer: This is due to the Chinook stocks present in this fishery. Based on Coded Wire Tag (CWT) recoveries, Marine Area 7 has historically had one of the largest “loss of fish” (referred to as impacts) on the Stillaguamish stock per fish caught by anglers. Because the Stillaguamish is the most constraining stock, additional days on the water in Marine Area 7 becomes very costly and utilize more impacts that could be used to promulgate other fisheries. There are trade-offs for using the limited number of Stillaguamish mortalities (a term used for the death of large numbers of fish) available to the non-tribal fishing fleet and a larger quota in Marine Area 7 would result in less fish available in the catch quotas throughout the rest of Puget Sound. In addition to Stillaguamish Chinook, Marine Area 7 is a known area where Snohomish, Nooksack spring, and Skagit Chinook stocks mill, and have been secondary constraining stocks in recent years.

Question: Why isn’t the Tulalip Bubble Fishery restricted like Marine Area 7 (San Juan Islands)?

Answer: The Tulalip Bubble fishery focuses on both time and space for people catching fish from the Tulalip hatchery Chinook stock. Coded Wire Tags (CWT) recovered in the Tulalip Bubble indicate that most of the Chinook catch is from the Tulalip stock rather than key constraining stocks. Marine Area 7 Chinook catches represent a greater diversity of stocks.

Question: From all data in 2023, there was an abundance of Chinook. Why is there not a way to increase opportunity to recreationally fish when there is abundance? WDFW seems to have no problem curtailing fisheries when catches are up. They should also not have a problem of expanding opportunity when there are more fish than forecasted.

Answer: Currently, there isn’t an effective method for assessing the total abundance of Chinook in-season in Puget Sound since healthy stocks congregate with poor stocks of fish. In addition, marine area fisheries are composed primarily of mixed stock fisheries, which means there are Chinook from multiple natal rivers in the area at the same time.

Even if we had a way to detect increased abundance of Chinook as a population during the middle of a fishing season, it would be very difficult to determine which stocks were being observed at higher numbers, and because wild Chinook are listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA), we would still need to manage to the weakest stock. Even considering just hatchery origin Chinook, we’d need to be sure all hatcheries made their broodstock goals (the number of fish allowed to escape a fishery to spawn), and it’d be extremely difficult to assess differences in abundance of hatchery stocks in-season. Our earliest indication of stock-specific abundance typically occurs as a portion of the fish enter their terminal areas of origin (typically found near hatcheries and natal rivers where a certain salmon stock is present), which is often after marine fisheries have occurred.

Question: Salmon returns through the Ballard Locks showed almost double the 5- to 10-year averages for Chinook and coho. But Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton Area) closed early. Is there no way for these updated numbers to be factored into the seasons?

Answer: By the time these fish hit the Ballard Locks, they are already out of Marine Area 10. This means the Ballard Locks fish counts are not a good metric for assessing marine area abundance.

Question: Can you go into further depth on the Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton Area) coho one fish limit with regards to resident coho versus ocean run coho?

Answer: Due to the high catch totals (more than 2.5 times expected), we were concerned about the impacts to wild stocks as Marine Area 10 is a non-selective fishery. The change to a one coho daily limit was to ensure that wild stocks of concern would meet their escapement goals. Once fish showed up in the rivers in significant numbers and regional fishery managers were confident escapement goals would be met, we changed the daily limit to two coho.

Question: Are the Stillaguamish Chinook stocks being fished by anyone?

Answer: Washington non-treaty and treaty fishers have impacts on Stillaguamish in both the marine and terminal areas. Northern fishers in Alaska and Canada also impact Stillaguamish Chinook in their marine fisheries. There are negligible impacts on the Stillaguamish stock from fisheries that occur south of Washington in Oregon and California. Most impacts on the Stillaguamish stock are direct and indirect fishing mortalities occurring outside of the river.

Question: What are the thoughts on shifting to more terminal fishing areas?

Answer: Terminal area fisheries are specific to areas that can support them, typically in small bays or river mouths where likely only one stock is affected. Any additional terminal area or bubble fisheries would have to fit that distinction of being a single-stock fishery. In terms of shifting to terminal area fisheries rather than marine areas while the in-season management might be easier because you know with greater certainty which stock is affected.

“Bubble fisheries” typically refers to fisheries that occur in the area immediately around a hatchery located near marine waters on a small stream with few natural-origin adults returning. This means the fishery encounters almost exclusively salmon returning to that hatchery. There are limited places where such hatcheries exist, so the creation of new bubble fisheries is not possible.

Question: Regarding the large harvest of coho in Marine Areas 9 (Admiralty Inlet) and Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton Area) in July 2023, is it safe to assume that was mostly resident coho? Is that an indicator that resident coho populations are increasing or is it more to do with increased effort?

Answer: It is not safe to assume it was all resident coho, and analyses of fishery samples for scales, fin clips, or “Coded Wire Tags” (CWT) have not been completed to determine stocks of origin or ages.

Question: Is high net pen resident coho catch always going to count against the later ocean run fish?

Answer: Net pen releases of coho are included as part pre-season forecasts and considered as part of the abundance of adult coho in fishery models. They do not count against later-timed migrating ocean run coho fish but are included as part of the number of fish available to catch during fishery openings throughout marine waters.

Question: Has there ever been consideration of a keep ‘two fish and go home’ regulation versus invoking marked versus unmarked retention restrictions? Wouldn’t this have a positive impact across all three metrics of encounters, unmarked, and avoid cross species fishing impact (catching a Chinook while coho fishing)?

Answer: In previous North of Falcon meetings, WDFW has explored and modeled non-selective options for certain marine area fisheries following public feedback. An example of one such modeling exercise is available on YouTube for winter Marine Area 7. You can begin viewing the modeling discussion at 1:55.

The key difference in a non-selective versus mark-selective fishery for unmarked/wild fish is whether they are released (a portion die due to post-release mortality) or are retained (100 percent mortality). While this regulation shift may reduce the number of unmarked encounters in-season, it would increase unmarked mortalities. Non-selective regulations for Chinook are generally more expensive on unmarked/wild stock mortalities than mark-selective fisheries and most stock management objectives are in terms of wild Chinook. Therefore, non-selective fisheries typically result in reduced allowable catch quotas and less fishing time. This is because unmarked fish that are released in a mark-selective fishery are now harvested.

Salmon anglers in Marine Area 5 near Sekiu. Photo by Chase Gunnell

Question: There was a lot of frustration and confusion around the in-season closure of Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton Area) Chinook last year. Can you explain what is being done this year to change the season this year to avoid this issue?

Answer: The reason Marine Area 10 was closed is due to high sublegal encounters at the end of July 2023. From the time we decided to close Marine Area 10 and the actual date of the closure, the fishery was still open, and test fishing was still occurring. In those four days, we observed a large push of legal marked (LM) fish, which increased the LM rate for the fishery, and dropped the sublegal encounters estimate. Based on that catch and continued test fishing, we were able to reopen for the additional weekends.

By opening marine areas with high sublegal effects, a week or two later, it could be possible to focus the fishery opening effort on the returning mature run, reducing sublegal encounters, and possibly extending the Chinook retention fishery later into the season.

Question: Is there anything that could be done to reduce the size limit to 20 inches like they do for Marine Area 13 (South Puget Sound)? Additionally, is there any correlation between the releases of net pen fish that theoretically become resident fish and the impacts on those sublegal fish?

Answer: While there were reports of many jacks (a male salmon that returns to spawn one year earlier and are smaller in size than their adult salmon counterparts) present during a few weeks in July 2023 in Marine Area 11, even by the test fishers, it appears this was only during a short period of time, over a week or two in July. There is not a way to do an in-season fishery assessment of the proportion of sub-legal mature fish (jack or age three) and sub-legal immature fish that will spend another year in saltwater. The biggest constraint in Marine Area 11 in July was unmarked Chinook so changing the size limit would not have helped.

Question: Is research available to show Stillaguamish fish in Marine Area 11 (Tacoma-Vashon Island) return to the Stillaguamish once they’ve traveled from 70-plus miles away. Also, how many non-Stillaguamish fish are caught in the Stillaguamish? Isn’t diversity of fish stocks beneficial?

Answer: Coded Wire Tag (CWT) data show that Stillaguamish fish are intercepted in most marine areas of Puget Sound. Both mature and immature fish mortalities are evaluated when calculating exploitation rates and evaluating compliance with management objectives. Immature Stillaguamish fish may not return to spawn in the year of capture but are still accounted for in management models.

In the Stillaguamish River, there are a few strays from other stocks, but in the terminal area, typically most of the catch is from the stock in that river. Stock diversity is valuable and each Chinook wild stock in Puget Sound has associated management objectives.

Though Stillaguamish has been a primary constraining stock in recent years, the Nisqually Chinook stock has also been constraining and is considered in Marine Area 11 fishery planning. There are other constraining Chinook stocks besides Stillaguamish. All Puget Sound Chinook are Endangered Species Act-listed.

You can find more information on Chinook management objectives and stocks throughout Puget Sound on our webpage as well as in this management plan.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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