Puget Sound salmon fishing season negotiations break down

Anglers will be able to fish for a reduced number of chinook along Washington’s coast this year and will only be able to keep coho caught in the waters off the mouth of the Columbia River.
Anglers will be able to fish for a reduced number of chinook along Washington’s coast this year and will only be able to keep coho caught in the waters off the mouth of the Columbia River. Staff file, 2014

Negotiations between the state and treaty tribes over fishing in Puget Sound broke off Thursday, leaving the prospect of a fishing season in limbo.

At the same time, federal fishery managers have approved a limited salmon fishing season off the state’s Pacific coast.

As co-managers, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound treaty tribes negotiate salmon fishing seasons, based on preseason run forecasts.

“I’m disappointed we couldn’t find a solution between us and the tribes,” said Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Unsworth.

He said the agency would reach out to tribal negotiators in hopes of restarting talks.

If an agreement can’t be reached by month’s end, both parties will have to seek their own permits from NOAA to open fisheries this year.

The question of how to craft fishing seasons based on this year’s projected low returns led to the breakdown in talks. The forecast is a return of 255,000 coho to the Sound, about one-third the size of 2015’s forecast.

Heading into meetings this week in Vancouver, Washington, the tribes were adamant that no coho fishing should take place in the Sound.

During negotiations, the tribes refused to change that stance, while the state said it could craft seasons to allow fishing for hatchery coho while protecting stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

In a plan being forwarded to NOAA Fisheries, the tribes stated they will close all their fisheries except for several terminal areas where harvestable hatchery fish will be caught.

In a statement issued Thursday, the tribes put the onus on the state agency.

“Unfortunately, the political leadership with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife did not provide a fisheries package that met the conservation needs of stocks of concerns because of low abundance,” Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said in the statement.

“The treaty fishing package is a conservative and appropriate approach to this historically low return.”

Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, disagreed with the tribal assessment.

He has been involved in these season-setting meetings since they began decades ago, first as a staff member with Fish and Wildlife and now as a recreational fishing proponent.

“In my view, the state was very well prepared and came ready to negotiate with the priority of protecting coho stocks,” Floor said. “However, the tribes came to the negotiating table to dictate.

“They said no, they said no, they said no. Whether it was to mark selective fishing for hatchery fish or catch and release, they said no,” he added.

As for fishing in Puget Sound this year, Floor said none will be permitted until further notice effective May 1.

“Where it goes from here, these are uncharted waters. It has never happen,” Floor said. “Attorneys are quickly becoming involved, as well as the publicity machines. It has quickly gone to a war of words.

“Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and we can get back to the negotiating table.”

For the ocean fishery, there will be no early season hatchery chinook season this year, but fishing for all salmon will open July 1 and end in late August or when chinook or coho quotas are reached.

This year’s recreational fishing quota coastwide is 35,000 chinook, down from more than 50,000 chinook last year.

Coho retention will be allowed only in the waters off the Columbia River, with a modest quota of just 18,900 coho, down drastically from the 2015 quota of 150,800 fish.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640