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Chehalis system could 96 percent fewer wild silver salmon in 2016 By Jordan Nailon The Chronicle
The forecast for 2016 salmon returns are in, and the outlook is not promising for coho. Low returns are predicted almost across the board, and that could mean the cancellation or extreme abbreviation of popular fisheries on a number of local waterways, including Grays Harbor, Chehalis River, Columbia River, Willapa Harbor and Puget Sound.
The forecasts, which were formulated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and treaty tribes, project especially dire silver returns for the Chehalis River system. The anticipated return of wild coho on the Chehalis in 2016 is listed at just 4,951 fish, down sharply from the 142,554 wild returners in 2015. The hatchery return is also expected to be down by about half this year, with only 22,890 clipped fin coho anticipated.
According to John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW, the dual hardship of poor hatchery and wild coho returns could combine to put the screws to the popular silver salmon fisheries in the region. “Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” said Long, in a press release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.” Elsewhere, the coho return to the Columbia River is projected to be only about half of last year’s forecasted return of 380,000 fish. Salmon forecasting can be a slippery task though, and only 242,000 coho actually wound up returning to the Columbia last year. Some stocks of Columbia River coho receive protections under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Again, in Puget Sound, the forecast of about 256,000 returning coho in 2016 is only about one-third of the forecast from 2015. The chinook run is also expected to be down from 2015, with only about 165,000 fish expected to make their comeback.
Guides Concerned Bill “Swanny” Swann is a veteran angling guide familiar with many of the well-fed drainages of Southwest Washington. Swann is especially cozy with the confines of the Chehalis River system, but the dismal forecast released this month by the WDFW has him feeling altogether uneasy. “The poor returns means little or no fishing, and for the professional guides who bring in clients to the communities and spend money on licenses, food, gas, lodging, et cetera, it is going to affect everyone,” explained Swann as he looked into his bait-scented crystal ball in order to predict shortened or cancelled coho seasons on the Chehalis and other local waterways.
From Swann’s perspective, the disappearing coho are no mystery, although he doesn’t believe the WDFW have been completely forthcoming either. “Ocean conditions are a coverup of the real problem between commercial nets and commercial sport boats,” said Swann “Last year alone there were 80,000 coho taken in the ocean before they ever got to the rivers they were headed to.” According to Swann, the blame can be passed around like a Thermos on a fishing boat, but a lack of oversight on commercial netting is the primary culprit.
“The lack of WDFW managing the treaty side is appalling,” said Swann. “They do not manage them. They only co-manage, (and) co-management means no management, which means mismanagement,” Swann’s assertion references the 50/50 split co-management system between treaty tribes and the WDFW. With no majority stake in the decision-making process, each group is free to offer suggestions to the other and negotiate in good faith, but ultimately the regulations are not subject to any sort of binding agreement. Swann added, “But we can not blame the tribes, we have to blame WDFW for letting them do it.”
Talking specifics and pointing the focus back at sport fisheries, as well as a finger at the WDFW, Swann noted, “Several years ago WDFW made the limit for coho in the Chehalis three wild or hatchery (fish),” explained Swann, who prefers a lower limit “We the sportsman protested and they did it anyway! … This happened two years in a row and now look what we have.”
Still, if you ask Swann, proprietor of Swanny’s Guided Fishing, all hope is not yet lost. “Habitat is the key to success for strong returns of all fish,” noted Swann. “The Chehalis system has some of the strongest habitat in the world for baby fry to live and feed with major protection before heading to sea.” In order to rebound returning salmon stocks on the Chehalis River, Swann suggests that the WDFW, “go back to the 1-1 system,” when anglers were permitted just one hatchery and one wild fish per day. “This system worked well for years,” said Swann, who pointed out that “there are more wild coho in the Chehalis than hatchery.” In any case, without some meaningful change, Swann sees a cut and dried ending for coho stocks, postulating that, “If we are taking more fish from the system than what is coming back, that is not a sustainable fishery.”
Public Input Fish officials are asking for public input as they work to write up the sport salmon fishing seasons for this year. A series of public meetings have been scheduled through early April in order to accumulate citizen input in light of the recent return forecasts before any final decisions are made. “We’re going to have to be creative in order to provide fisheries in some areas this year,” Long said in the press release. “We would appreciate input from the public to help us establish priorities.” Information about the public meetings, specifics on salmon forecasts, and an online commenting tool can be found on the WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/northfalcon/. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to make a final decision on ocean fisheries and harvest levels during its April 8-14 meetings in Vancouver. WDFW and tribal co-managers will likely set freshwater and harbor seasons at that time as well.
Numerous attempts to contact the WDFW for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Dazed and confused.............the fog is closing in