For Upper Skagit Tribe, fishing is a way of life
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife is grappling with how to address the concerns of some nontribal fishermen who say they are losing opportunities to fish for salmon in the region.
From the Skagit River in north Puget Sound to the Skokomish River in south Puget Sound, nontribal fishermen sat they have had doors close for several salmon fisheries and limits set for others that prevent them from reeling in the same number of fish as tribal fishermen.
“What’s missing in the whole equation here is opportunity: Opportunity for us to get our fair share on the Skagit River, and opportunity for us to fish on the Skokomish River,” Steelhead Trout Club of Washington President Al Senyohl said during a recent meeting with state officials.
Fish & Wildlife staff discussed issues involving the sockeye salmon fishery in the Skagit River watershed and the use of some of those salmon in the Skokomish River watershed at a state Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting Oct. 27.
What’s missing in the whole equation here is opportunity: Opportunity for us to get our fair share on the Skagit River, and opportunity for us to fish on the Skokomish River.
Al Senyohl, president of Steelhead Trout Club of Washington
As other fisheries have closed in recent years in the Skagit River watershed, Baker River sockeye have become the prized fish for nontribal fishermen. The Baker River is a tributary of the Skagit River.
Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon said while the Skagit River is the largest river in Puget Sound, the only nontribal fishing opportunity this year was for Baker River sockeye.
“It’s the only thing we’ve got on that river right now and I want to see it grow,” he said. “I remember as a youngster … you’d get down to the boat launch near the spot where you wanted to fish and within three-eighths of a mile on the Skagit River south of Mount Vernon, there would be 100, 150 boats anchored up. Now you don’t see any – it’s pitiful.”
The summer fishery on the river and Baker Lake near Concrete draws fishermen from throughout the region. Yet some of those fishermen feel there is an increasing disparity in opportunities for tribal and nontribal fishermen to catch those fish.
Aaron Dufault, a salmon policy analyst for Fish & Wildlife, said the commission could improve how fish returns are forecast – which determines the division of fish between tribal and nontribal fishermen – or increase the opportunity for nontribal fishing on the river.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Upper Skagit Indian Tribe did not return requests for comment.
From early June to early September, nontribal fishermen have opportunities to fish the Skagit River from Highway 536 in Mount Vernon to Gilligan Creek between Sedro-Woolley and Lyman, and to fish Baker Lake.
Current regulations allow the Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe to fish for sockeye throughout the Skagit River, from the mouth up to the Lower Baker Dam.
That means tribal fishermen have access to fish before they reach areas open to nontribal fishermen.
When it comes to forecasting, Carpenter and Dufault said the uncertainty of ocean conditions – and how those affect the survival of fish – is a major issue.
“We know how many smolts (young fish) leave the system. We just don’t know how many in the ocean are surviving,” Dufault said.
When the fish return to spawn, Fish & Wildlife doesn’t get data on how strong the numbers are until the fish reach traps at the Lower Baker Dam. It can take as long as 20 days for the fish to swim from Skagit Bay up to the dam, and during that time tribal fishermen are able to take fish from the Skagit River, Dufault said.
Dufault said in years when fewer fish return than forecast, tribal fishermen often have already met their quota by the time Fish & Wildlife sets new catch limits – leaving only nontribal fishermen subject to modifications for the season.
In 2014 and 2017, that resulted in tribal fishermen getting at least twice as many fish as nontribal fishermen, according to Fish & Wildlife data.
Frank Urabeck, a regional fishing activist, said 2017 marked a record year for catch disparities, with about 9,000 more fish caught by tribal fishermen.
Concerns about eggs
Nontribal fishermen also are concerned that Fish & Wildlife has started transferring thousands of sockeye salmon eggs from the Baker Lake hatchery to a hatchery that will later release the fish into the Skokomish River.
The agency is operating under a plan to share as many as 500,000 eggs per year with the hatchery, which is operated by Tacoma Power in partnership with the Skokomish Indian Tribe.
Nontribal fishermen are frustrated with this plan because part of the Skokomish River is closed to nontribal fishing, and they believe taking eggs from the Baker Lake hatchery further reduces the number of fish they have a chance to catch from the Skagit River and Baker Lake in future years.
“This agreement makes little sense in the face of the controversial nature of … closing the Skokomish River to sport fishing access,” the Steelhead Trout Club of Washington’s Senyohl said.
A portion of the Skokomish River is closed to nontribal fishermen due to an ongoing dispute about whether the river is on tribal reservation land, according to Fish & Wildlife.
Edward Eleazer, Fish & Wildlife’s fish program manager for the north Puget Sound region, said the idea of sharing eggs with a hatchery on the Skokomish River is that if that sockeye population grows, fisheries could potentially open throughout that watershed.
Carpenter recommended Fish & Wildlife bring together tribal and nontribal interests in the area to discuss how to improve management of the Skagit River and Baker Lake sockeye fishery.
“I think we need to reach across the aisle and get with them and the agency and share our views and seek a better understanding of each need, the needs of the tribes and the needs of the nontribal sector,” he said.
The Fish & Wildlife Commission said its fish committee – a subset of commissioners – will continue discussing the issues surrounding sockeye management.