State, tribal officials agree on Puget Sound salmon plan - with limits

Reef net fisher Eden Southworth slides sockeye salmon into a iced tote on a fishing barge off the coast of Lummi Island on Aug. 22, 2014.
Reef net fisher Eden Southworth slides sockeye salmon into a iced tote on a fishing barge off the coast of Lummi Island on Aug. 22, 2014. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

State and tribal fishery officials said Thursday that after weeks of negotiations they’ve agreed on a plan that will allow for a slamon fishing season in Puget Sound this summer and fall, with some limitations.

Recreational and non-tribal commercial salmon fishing in Puget Sound has been closed since May 1, after the state and tribes failed to come to an agreement over annual catch limits. That prompted concern that a fishing season might not happen this year.

The agreement still needs federal approval, but John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said anglers can start planning to fish for salmon this summer.

“We plan to re-open those waters as soon as we have federal approval,” Long said. “We anticipate getting the new permit within a few weeks.”

Among the changes from 2015 that could affect Whatcom County anglers:

▪  Anglers fishing in Marine Area 7 — surrounding the San Juan Islands — in July can keep two salmon, including two hatchery chinook. They must release coho and wild chinook. In August and September , anglers also can keep one hatchery or wild chinook as part of their two salmon daily limit.

▪  The forecast for sockeye returning to Baker Lake is strong enough to allow for both a lake fishery, open mid-July through early September, and a fishery on the Skagit River, which will be open June 16 through July 15 with a guideline of 4,600 fish.

▪  Fishing will be closed on the Skagit and Cascade rivers, among others, during September and October to protect coho.

▪  Marine Area 8-1 (Deception Pass, Hope Island and Skagit Bay) will remain closed to salmon fishing until November, when anglers will be allowed to retain hatchery chinook but must release coho.

Anticipated low numbers of salmon — especially coho — returning to Puget Sound made this year’s negotiations challenging, officials said. Low returns of chinook, chum and coho are expected.

There will be no coho fisheries in marine areas of Puget Sound, with the exception of Hood Canal, and Fish and Wildlife is closing some rivers, like the Skagit, and marine areas to all salmon fishing during September and October, the peak months for coho to return to Puget Sound.

The agreement between the state and tribal leaders must be approved by federal officials because some fish stocks are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The state and tribes typically 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 court decision that affirmed the right of tribes to half of harvestable salmon.

The co-managers will focus next on addressing long-term resource management concerns, such as restoring habitat and boosting salmon stocks.

“Habitat restoration and protection must be at the center of that effort,” said Lorraine Loomis, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chairwoman. “There is a direct connection between salmon habitat and fishing opportunities. We can’t expect salmon to thrive while their habitat continues to be lost and damaged.”