The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed recreational and non-tribal commercial salmon fishing in Puget Sound, after the state and tribes failed to come to an agreement over annual catch limits.
The closures include salmon and steelhead-fishing in Puget Sound marine areas, and all fishing in several lakes and many rivers that flow into Puget Sound.
Here are some questions and answers about what’s happening.
WHY IS SALMON FISHING CLOSED IN PUGET SOUND?
The state and tribes need a federal permit in order to set the salmon fishing season in Puget Sound, because chinook salmon is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Typically, the state and tribes submit a joint fisheries proposal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which reviews it to ensure that fishing doesn’t harm protected fish.
The state and Puget Sound tribes have shared management of these fisheries for decades, following a landmark Boldt court decision that affirmed the right of tribes to half of harvestable salmon.
This year, for the first time in more than three decades, the parties couldn’t reach an agreement on a joint package before the fishing season began May 1. The previous permit expired April 30. Each side now says it will seek separate federal approval.
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
“We know this is a hardship on many communities around Puget Sound and disappoints many anglers,” Ron Warren, head of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish program, said in a recent statement.
Puget Sound sport fishery generates about $100 million in economic value, according to the Northwest Marine Trade Association and others.
The group’s president George Harris said the impacts will be felt wider because other businesses depend on sport fishing, including guide services, boat sales and boat repairs. “It’s put a big cloud of uncertainty in the mind of anglers,” he added.
WHAT'S THE ISSUE?
One of the remaining sticking points is over how to share the harvest of chinook salmon returning to the Puyallup River, according to both tribal and state officials.
But some say there’s the larger problem of fewer fish to harvest.
“This is the result of not taking care of habitat. We have far fewer fish. Negotiations get more difficult,” said Tony Meyer, a spokesman with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
The group’s chairwoman Lorraine Loomis said in a statement that “we are losing habitat faster than it can be restored and it is destroying the salmon resource.”
Overall, chinook salmon runs in Puget Sound are down between 20 and 25 percent from last year, and coho salmon also are expected to return in low numbers this year, said John Long, WDFW’s intergovernmental salmon manager.
There are a number of factors blamed for the decline of chinook salmon over the years, including loss of habitat from development and other reasons, poor ocean conditions, predation from seals and hatchery practices.
“We’re trying to divide up less and less fish and that’s not good,” said Ron Garner, president of Puget Sound Anglers. “We and the tribes want to see more habitat and more fish in the hatchery and that’s not happening.”
WHY ARE SOME PROTESTING?
A small group of fishermen on Wednesday protested early-season chinook tribal fishery, recalling past tensions between tribal and sport fishermen.
NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein says the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave preliminary approval to limited early season salmon fisheries for the tribe.
Garner said he took part in the protest in La Conner to call out an issue of fairness. “We’re not fishing,” he noted. “We’re off the water now because we don’t have a permit.”
“We are disappointed that some sportsmen may protest our treaty fisheries,” Loomis said. She says “these fisheries will not impact the long-term sustainability of salmon runs” and is particularly important to tribes because it’s the first run of salmon to return.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
State and tribal officials say they remain hopeful and open to an agreement. In the meantime, they’re seeking federal approval for separate plans.
It will be the first time the state has sought its own federal permit for Puget Sound fisheries. “This is totally uncharted,” said WDFW’s Long.
The process could take “at least a few months” because the plan has to go through a review and public comment period, said NOAA’s Milstein.
In the past, the tribe and state together have benefited from an expedited permitting process that the tribes enjoy because they received federal funding for fisheries through the BIA and is considered a federal action.
WHAT'S CLOSED IN PUGET SOUND?
For a complete listing, go to http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/pugetsound_salmon_update/.