Uncertainties abound as latest Puget Sound salmon fishing talks failed to produce an agreement

With the failure of the state and treaty tribes to reach an agreement on fishing seasons, salmon fishing in Puget Sound will close Sunday.
With the failure of the state and treaty tribes to reach an agreement on fishing seasons, salmon fishing in Puget Sound will close Sunday. Staff file, 2008

With salmon fishing in Puget Sound expected to close Sunday, the state of other fisheries remains unclear after the state and tribes failed to reach an agreement in talks Wednesday.

Without an agreement, and the necessary federal approval, salmon fishing will not be allowed in the Sound and the rivers and streams that feed into it as of Sunday.

The current federal permit that allows salmon fishing expires Saturday.

“Both sides had fishing packages that met our conservation goals, but we could not agree on how to make it happen,” Ron Warren, salmon policy lead for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said of Wednesday’s talks.

The agency proposed salmon fisheries that allowed anglers to harvest chinook while protecting coho, Warren said. The tribes have said they would close all direct coho fisheries except in several terminal areas with a harvestable number of fish.

Since the co-management process began in the mid-1980s, the state agency and tribal co-managers negotiate each spring to craft fishing seasons.

Factors they consider include the size of salmon runs and steps necessary to minimize effects on chinook salmon stocks protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Occasionally contentious, the talks result in an agreement that sets Puget Sound fishing seasons for recreational, non-tribal commercial and tribal fisheries.

The agreement is reviewed by NOAA-Fisheries to ensure listed salmon stocks are not threatened by overharvesting available fish. Without the permit, salmon fishing cannot proceed.

The state and tribes said Wednesday they will pursue obtaining own federal permits.

Warren said the department was to meet Thursday with NOAA-Fisheries and hoped to learn how long the approval process would take. Some estimates have ranged from eight months to a year.

If it were to take a year, that would mean no recreational or non-tribal commercial fishing for the entire season, which runs from May 1, 2916, to April 30, 2017.

Such a closure would mean a loss of millions of dollars for the recreational and commercial fishing industries, as well as ancillary businesses.

Companies such as Silver Horde Fishing Supplies Inc. already are seeing a drop in business because of the uncertainty of fishing this season.

Tribal officials have said they are confident they can obtain a permit to allow limited salmon fishing.

Faced with low chinook returns and potentially record low coho runs, the tribes have said that this year is not about salmon harvest, but about conserving the salmon for future, said Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents the 20 Puget Sound-area tribes.

In addressing future salmon runs, the tribes placed the onus on the state to develop a long-term strategy to increase production of hatchery and wild salmon.

Creating habitat must be the focal point of such an effort, the tribes contend.

“Hatchery and wild fish rely on the same habitat for most of their lives, and that habitat is being lost faster than it can be restored,” Loomis said in a statement. “Our treaty rights are at risk because salmon are disappearing right along with their habitat.”

Recreational anglers are left wondering what fishing will be allowed in Puget Sound as summer approaches.

Warren previously said anglers would be able to pursue flatfish such as sole and flounder. Fishing for sea run cutthroat trout, however, was uncertain because of the possibility of hooking salmon.

“Unfortunately, it means no (salmon) fishing,” Warren said of the impasse. “We know that impacts the people who like fishing, but also the industry that supports them.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640


Lummi carver Felix Solomon talks about the story pole he carved named "It's Mine", Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at his Lummi Reservation studio. The pole, which describes the fight over salmon, will be displayed at the Bellingham International Airport.