Early blackmouth success leads to bag reduction

There’s always a risk in this day and age that if salmon fishers jump out of the blocks with a cracker jack start to a season that will have consequences as season progresses.

Bring too many salmon to the boat, too early and it’ll be necessary to reduce the take home or shorten the season.

Managers say that’s the case this year for Marine Area 7 fishers in the greater San Juans region of Washington’s inland waters.

On Monday, Jan. 12 the bag or daily catch limit drops to one hatchery-origin fish per day from the normal two marked fish retention.

“Fishing was really good in December,” said Ryan Lothrop, a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Under U. S. Endangered Species Act-driven management guidelines for Puget Sound chinook, personal use fisheries are governed, in part, by over-arching maximum numbers of angler encounters of both adipose fin clipped (hatchery origin fish that may be kept) and unclipped wild fish (that must be released).

State federal and tribal managers are concerned about the inevitable but inadvertent deaths of the wild fish from stocks of concern (Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook) that are released. There is a maximum allowable number of those delayed or incidental mortalities that may occur (stipulated in the federal permit sanctioning each fishery).

Treaty tribe fisheries also are governed by maximum incidental impact percentages on stocks of concern.

Formulas for each change from year to year according to the anticipated returns of wild and hatchery fish.

When a formula bottomline says that a threshold has been reached, managers must shut down a management zone(s) to stay within allowable losses of wild fish.


State fish and wildlife officials report that the numbers for Marine Area 7, so far, are as follows, the pre-season-set maximum encounter guideline for the 2014-15 winter stanza is 7,775 chinook.

As of Sunday, Dec. 28 they estimate that anglers had kept or let go 4,060 feeder kings. That’s just over half (at 52 percent) of that ceiling figure that have been caught in just the first month of Area 7’s five-month season. The season was originally set to run from December 2014 to April 2015.

The bag limit reduction is intended to slow the rate at which angler encounters are accruing so this winter’s season will last for a reasonable period, perhaps even to the end of April planned closure.

“We’re taking this step now in an effort to keep the fishery open as long as possible while staying within our conservation objectives,” said Lothrop.

Anglers are reminded that they have the run of the entire breadth of Marine Area 7 waters until the end of March at which time the Bellingham and Samish bay terminal area closure to protect North and South Fork Nooksack native chinook takes effect for the last 30 days of the blackmouth stint.

Saltwater anglers here can take road trips for winter blackmouth and influence the duration of fishing in someone elses home waters by plying Marine Areas 5, 6, 8.1, 8.2, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13.

Marine Area 10 (waters between Seattle and Bremerton) is set to close the earliest at the end of January.

Most have a yellow highlighted caveat in the regulations saying that they too could close earlier than their set dates if conservation guides are met.


The 2015 Skagit brant hunt is officially off.

State biologists doing the mandatory pre-season aerial census Sunday, Jan. 4 found a total of 3,600 Pacific and Western High Arctic birds present in Samish and Padilla bays

For the scheduled eight-day hunt to go forth, according to the principle rule of the Skagit brant management plan, a minimum of 6,000 birds need to be present.

This year’s Northwest Washington weekend brant opener was tentatively set for Saturday, Jan. 10 and was to have been followed by hunt days on Jan. 11, 14, 17, 18, 21, 24 and 25.

The Southwest Washington brant hunt, centering on Willapa Bay, slated for 10 days in January did start as scheduled Saturday, Jan. 3. Open days remaining in this hunt are Jan. 11, 13, 15 and 17-18.

The key difference of these two hunts is that the Willapa effort is targeting ‘passage’ birds in a large streaming population that’s migrating along the coast south to wintering headquarters in waters along Baja California.

By contrast, the Samish and Padilla bay hunt focuses on a much smaller group of ‘destination’ birds that are homing on their wintering grounds. To sustain this population a much more limited harvest of birds with the ‘Skagit’ memory is critical and also tightly controlled when a season is opened.

Under a rigorous management plan, these hunts are limited to just a few days, bag (daily) limits similarly are tight (two brant a day), the numbers of participants and birds they kill are scrupulously tracked and critical habitat has been protected.

Historically the Samish/Padilla wintering brant population contains the only known occurrence of the Western High Arctic or ‘gray-belly’ species of brant on the entire west coast of North America.

Washington’s northern inland waters winter contingent of black brant, as a group, also nests apart from the rest of the Pacific Flyway’s large black brant population.

The sprawling Yukon-Kuskowim river (Western Alaska) and MacKenzie River (Northwest Territory) deltas are the main breeding grounds for the Pacific (black) brant plying the west coast of North America.

As late as the mid-1990s it was suspected that the mix of Samish/Padilla birds nested apart from the main population somewhere to the east of the two big brant nesting colonies in the central Canadian Arctic.

But it wasn’t until several discrete tagging studies were done that this was confirmed.

With the use of neck collars, color-coded leg bands and miniature radio transmitters, these birds were eventually traced to tundra nesting areas centering on Melville Island off Canada’s mid-Arctic Coast.

Another facet of brant behavior that satellite radio tracking helped demonstrate is their preference for migrating along continental shorelines rather than flying long distances over land. With a few exceptions, brant as a species do not venture very far from saltwater environs, especially the bays and inlets along their migration routes where eelgrasses, which are the mainstay of their diet, grow.

Brant keep to the same fairly strict diet on their wintering grounds, flocking to shallow bays _ so-called stranded estuaries _ that do not have major influxes of fresh water. These bays have a more typical salinity than marine waters receiving rivers and that favors growth of eelgrasses.

Another unusual behavior of brant is that outside of the nesting season they seldom come ashore.

It is only for brief periods on winter days here during low tides that these land-shy birds approach gravel beaches and spits to pick up a daily ration of small gravel. In their crops this ‘grit’ helps grind up the tough, stringy marine vegetation before it’s digested. Several of these gravel sites in Skagit County are now reserves where hunting is not allowed.

Otherwise, the birds spend most of the day and night rafted up and idling in open water areas feeding on floating wrack lines of eelgrass and a small selection of other intertidal and sub-tidal saltwater plants.

Hunters do get a bit of a nod in that the limited array of hunt days here and at Willapa Bay are selected for the occurrence of daytime low tides that prompt brant movements to and from gravelling sites.

Weather plays a key role in both hunter turnout and success making this one of the more challenging waterfowl hunts in the Northwest. There are no make-up days.

Managers say that the downturn in this year’s numbers is not unprecedented and has happened before as late as 2003.

Declines in nesting productivity are, generally, the result of poor summer weather conditions leading up to and just after the hatch when females and goslings are most vulnerable.

Managers also speculate the North Pacific climate oscillation could be playing a role in changing behavior leading to the reduction in wintering Skagit birds in that more birds are now staying at the sprawling Izembek Lagoon on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

Izembek is an historic major staging area on both spring and fall brant migrations, which the birds may now be finding hospitable enough for a prolonged layover.