Understanding Puget Sound salmon fisheries management

Navigating one of the world’s most complex fishery processes

By Kelly Cunningham, WDFW Fish Program Director

Anglers fishing near Kingston. (Chase Gunnell photo)

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) knows anglers look forward to the state’s salmon fishing seasons every year, with many planning trips months in advance. With recent in-season closures in Marine Area 10 and 11, I wanted to provide some context about why it is necessary and how salmon fishing in saltwater is managed.

We also share your frustration when scheduled Puget Sound seasons change or close early due to conservation concerns or harvest quotas being met early. We don’t make these decisions lightly, typically consulting with the Puget Sound sportfishing advisory group, along with other members of the public and tribal co-managers, prior to adjusting seasons.

Co-Management Framework

As part of its mandate, WDFW is committed to providing sustainable salmon fishing opportunities balanced with salmon recovery needs, and we are continually working to improve fisheries management in the interest of salmon, anglers, tribes, and all Washingtonians.

But state law isn’t the only regulatory authority at play in Washington’s salmon fishery management framework.

Those also include the Pacific Salmon Treaty — an agreement made in 1985 between the U.S. government and Canada — the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions (U.S. v. Oregon and U.S. v. Washington), including the agreements resulting from those decisions. Collectively, these represent one of the most complex fishery management frameworks in the world — and possibly even the most complex.

Regarding Puget Sound Salmon fisheries, under U.S. v. Washington, the state is required to work closely with the affected Washington treaty tribes to craft fishing seasons during the annual salmon-season setting process known as North of Falcon (NOF). The name refers to Cape Falcon in northern Oregon, which marks the southern border of active management for Washington salmon stocks. This process occurs every spring and sets seasons statewide for much of the subsequent year.

With Puget Sound Chinook listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), there is yet another layer of complexity. These fish of concern intermingle with many other salmon returning along the entire West Coast. This presents a unique challenge for fisheries managers who seek to provide sustainable salmon fishing opportunities for healthy or hatchery populations while limiting impacts on sensitive or ESA-listed salmon runs that are also present.

With recreational, commercial, and tribal salmon fisheries occurring from Alaska south to California, it is nearly impossible to identify all the salmon mingling in the waters known as a “mixed-stock area.”

The term mixed-stock area is a fishery whose stock consists of salmon from a variety of wild and hatchery stocks with differences in age, size, species, geographic or genetic origins, or any combination of these variables. In many cases, this can include ESA-listed fish.

In mixed-stock areas, state and tribal fisheries managers must abide by harvest quotas and allowable impacts that are federally approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service based on agreed-upon run forecasts prior to the fishing season, even when actual salmon returns appear to exceed pre-season forecasts.

In-Season Management

As of right now, there is no way to adjust run-size estimates or update forecasts for mixed stock fisheries in Puget Sound. While it may appear that there are higher-than-expected returns in a marine area, there is currently no way to immediately determine whether these fish are from critical stocks. Without that information, fisheries cannot be adjusted in-season in mixed-stock areas if harvest rates on critical stocks are above or below what was anticipated in pre-season planning.

When setting the annual fishing seasons, the state and tribes must craft and prosecute fisheries that not only do not impede recovery of those stocks but also support their recovery. This means that all parties involved, collectively, must meet conservation goals for each ESA-listed stock.

These conservation goals are outlined in the 10-year Puget Sound Chinook Resource Management Plan (RMP). The RMP serves multiple purposes and is used by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries to evaluate our regulatory responsibilities associated with the ESA and ultimately permit our salmon fisheries, and it is used by the co-managers to ensure we meet our conservation goals for each stock in every watershed.

Meeting the conservation goals means WDFW must monitor all salmon fisheries closely and there are many facets to this. Several ways to monitor salmon fisheries include test fishing, creel surveys, catch record card reporting, and on-water surveys.

A WDFW research vessel conducts test fishing in Marine Area 7 in 2022.

These monitoring programs and efforts are outlined in the List of Agreed Fisheries (LOAF) resulting from the annual NOF process.

For example, we need to limit encounters — that is, the number of fish that “encounter” an angler’s hook, even if the fish is caught and released — for certain salmon stocks of concern. We also need to limit our encounters of sub-legal (juvenile salmon or salmon under a minimum “keeper” size limit) fish, and ensure that enough natural origin, “wild” fish return to the spawning grounds, just to name a few of the requirements.

Marine areas 10 and 11

The Marine Area 11 summer Chinook fishery began July 1 and was closed on July 15 due to high sublegal encounters (Chinook under the 22-inch minimum size limit). The fishery controls for Marine Area 11 were harvest quota (1,423 Chinook) and sublegal encounters (1,697 Chinook). At the time the fishery was closed, the fishery had reached 97% of sublegal encounters, even though only 24% of the harvest quota was caught. Immediately, we began to work on a plan to reopen for pink and coho opportunity.

Re-opening Marine Area 11 in July and August would have led to an early closure of coho, pink, and chum salmon fisheries through the rest of the year due to unmarked Chinook impacts. For this reason, WDFW managers developed a plan in consultation with co-managers, the Puget Sound Sport Fishing Advisory Group, and based on comments from the public to reopen as of Wednesday Aug. 9 to shore-based fishing only, which allows for coho and pink opportunities without adversely impacting Chinook stocks.

Anglers fish for winter Chinook in Marine Area 10 in 2022. (Chase Gunnell photo)

In Marine Area 10, anglers encountered a similar situation with sublegal encounters. The Marine Area 10 summer Chinook fishery began on July 13, and like the Marine Area 11 fishery, employed both harvest quota (3,566 Chinook) and sublegal encounters (7,748 Chinook) as fishery controls.

During July, the legal mark rate (LM) rate for this fishery was approximately 13%, meaning that for each legal, adipose fin-clipped Chinook, there were roughly eight fish released. This ultimately led to the closure of Chinook retention on Aug. 4.

We continued creel sampling and test fishing after the initial estimate that the fishery was above management thresholds. The additional information collected during the last four days of the fishery indicated there was a large push of legal, adipose fin-clipped Chinook entering the fishery. As a result, we were able to reopen Chinook retention on Aug. 11- 13 and Aug. 18–20. WDFW fishery managers will continue to evaluate this fishery as it progresses for further potential openings.

For coho, we planned and implemented a fishery targeting coho in the months of June and July, prior to offering Chinook retention in Marine Area 10. Anglers in these months were incredibly successful in targeting coho in Marine Area 10. As of July 30, there were 17,795 coho harvested in the Marine Area 10 recreational fishery, almost 220% of the preseason expectation of 8,070 fish. While most Puget Sound wild coho stocks have shown increased numbers in recent years, there are still several stocks of concern including Skagit wild coho, which limited fisheries in the preseason planning process. These factors combined prompted the reduction in the daily limit to one coho for the foreseeable future.

WDFW staff work extremely hard throughout the year to develop salmon seasons that maximize fishing opportunities even under these many constraints, and to include the public in those decisions wherever possible. We hear feedback from anglers who fish every waterbody in the state, and we take that feedback seriously to help inform our current and future management strategies.

Our ability to prosecute our fisheries and access our full quota is dependent upon meeting our conservation objectives for our fisheries as described in the RMP and outlined in the LOAF. Deviation from the LOAF requires co-manager agreement and should our monitoring efforts indicate we have exceeded or are about to exceed an agreed-to conservation metric, we are at risk of potentially triggering an action under U.S. v. Washington. Further, we are at risk of impeding the recovery of listed stocks if we do not act, which then could impact fisheries in the years to follow.

For more on the salmon season-setting process, please visit our WDFW webpage: www.wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/season-setting/processes#salmon

Regular updates on Puget Sound salmon catch estimates and quotas are available on the WDFW website at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/reports/creel/seasonal

You can read more about in-season management for mixed stock and terminal area salmon fisheries on the WDFW Medium blog at: https://wdfw.medium.com/in-season-management-for-mixed-stock-and-terminal-area-salmon-fisheries-d5a3c977bcfc



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.