Science, sharing, and sustainability: demystifying the Columbia River salmon management cycle

The second video in our Columbia River series covers the annual Columbia River salmon management cycle.

What makes managing Columbia River salmon management so complex?

In our first Columbia River video, we talked about how the river benefits Washington socially, economically, and ecologically. In our second Columbia River video, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) managers and scientists walk through the annual management cycle for non-treaty commercial and recreational fisheries.

Each year, there’s a lot to consider: the unique life cycle of salmon and steelhead, the requirements for staying within our harvest constraints, and the need to share and coordinate management of fisheries with different user groups,” said Charlene Hurst, Ph.D., WDFW’s Columbia River Management Unit Lead.

“Throughout this process, we prioritize conservation, and we aim to maximize sustainable opportunity for Columbia River fisheries within those conservation parameters.”

A salmon’s complex life cycle makes planning a challenge

Salmon and steelhead are anadromous, which means they migrate between freshwater and saltwater. During migration, they face various fisheries and environmental threats along the way. Salmon and steelhead survival and reproduction vary from year to year, making it challenging for scientists to accurately assess abundance each year.

Our harvest management allocates a smaller proportion of returning salmon in years when they are less abundant. We can allocate a larger proportion when they are more abundant, often resulting in more fishing opportunities. This is called abundance-based harvest management.

This concept of abundance-based harvest would be straightforward if we only encountered one stock at a time — or if all the fish stocks in the river had the same abundance. But when we go fishing, we’re likely to encounter fish from many different stocks, all with different abundances. This is what we call a mixed-stock fishery. Managers need to consider regulations that protect ESA-listed or low-abundance stocks while potentially allowing fishing for healthy stocks, sometimes creating limitations even for healthy populations.

Sharing the salmon

Boats line the shore at the Ringold Springs water access area.

Balancing the needs of commercial fishers, recreational anglers, and Columbia River treaty tribes adds complexity to the management process. As human populations have grown, the demand for salmon for food and recreation has also increased. However, salmon numbers have decreased because the habitats they depend on have declined dramatically. Managers must ensure enough fish survive to reproduce while allowing harvest for various user groups.

Striking a balance between conserving fish populations and allowing for sustainable fishing is challenging. WDFW and co-managers follow a process to craft sustainable fisheries based on agreements and rules. Both state and tribal managers bring skilled capacity to the management process, and we’ve adapted to better acknowledge the unique value of wild salmon and steelhead within the ecosystem.

Multi-layered allocation

Everyone plays a part in keeping salmon populations healthy. This includes government agencies, tribes, and the public. Setting harvest limits and allocating available fish involves multiple steps and agreements among various organizations and government bodies. This process requires extensive coordination and collaboration.

“Columbia River fisheries are managed through a science-based and dynamic annual management process,” explains Ryan Lothrop, WDFW’s Columbia River fishery manager. To establish salmon allocations between non-treaty commercial and recreational fishery sectors, WDFW works with many entities, including:


· Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans

· Pacific Fishery Management Council

· US v Washington Treaty Tribes

· Columbia River treaty tribes

· Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

If that sounds like a lot of coordination, it’s because it is!

Your input matters: managing fisheries in the Columbia River

A young angler with her first steelhead in Southwest Washington. Photo credit: Doyle Dillehay

Once we know how many fish can be harvested for healthy stocks and how many allowable Endangered Species Act (ESA) impacts we have for listed stocks, managers make decisions through a public process to plan fisheries within our harvest constraints. The public has opportunities to share their opinions about fishing rules throughout the process. Anyone can attend and comment during public meetings in person or digitally, depending on the meeting modality.

Depending on where the fish are caught, the planning process and meetings take place through one of two different forums:

· The North of Falcon process is administered by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. In general, Columbia River stocks that are caught in the ocean go through North of Falcon.

· The Columbia River Compact is the joint-state management process between Oregon and Washington. In general, Columbia River stocks that are caught in the Columbia River go through the Compact.

Hearing the public’s input on commercial and recreational fisheries helps WDFW managers craft seasons that reflect the needs of those user groups to the best of our ability.

The challenges of balancing demand with sustainability

These interconnected factors create a challenging environment for fisheries management. Successful management requires consideration of ecological, social, and economic aspects to ensure sustainable fishing practices and healthy fish populations.

Hear more details about mixed-stock fisheries, allocation, public input, and more in our video, where we discuss the annual Columbia River salmon management cycle in detail. To learn more about the river’s ecological, social, and economic significance to the Pacific Northwest, watch our first video.



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.