Poor coho returns demand caution
There likely will be no coho fisheries in western Washington this year as returns are expected to plummet even further than last year because of poor ocean survival.
Coho returns in 2015 were as much as 80 percent below pre-season forecasts. The Nisqually Tribe canceled its coho fishery when fewer than 4,000 of the 23,000 fish expected actually returned. The same story was repeated in many tribal fishing areas.
That’s why western Washington treaty Indian tribes are calling for greater caution in fisheries management planning this year and more equitable sharing with the state of the responsibility for conservation. It is important that we have agreement on in-season management methods and actions before the season starts.
Unlike sport fishermen who can go where fishing is best, tribal fishermen are bound by treaty to traditional fishing places located mostly in terminal areas – such as rivers and bays – that are the end of the line for returning salmon.
Every year we must wait and hope that enough fish return to feed our families and culture. Faced with low catch rates last year, however, most tribal coho fisheries were sharply reduced or closed early to protect the resource. The state, however, expanded sport harvest in mixed stock areas last year to attempt to catch fish that weren’t there.
That’s not right. The last fisheries in line should not be forced to shoulder most of the responsibility for conserving the resource.
Making matters worse, lack of monitoring by federal fisheries managers last year allowed Southeast Alaska commercial fishermen to exceed their harvest quota by more than 100,000 chinook. Most of those fish were bound for Washington waters.
Coho salmon that managed to make it back last year showed frightening effects of poor ocean conditions. Most were 20 to 30 percent smaller than normal. Females returned with about 40 percent fewer eggs. That will likely result in lower natural and hatchery production and fewer fish in the future.
Right now what salmon need is plenty of good habitat to increase stock abundance and build resiliency to survive the impacts of climate change and poor ocean conditions. Sadly, salmon habitat continues to be lost and damaged faster than it can be restored, threatening the future of the salmon and tribal treaty-reserved harvest rights.
Fisheries management is about the future, and the future doesn’t look good for salmon if we don’t reverse the trend of habitat loss and damage.
Perhaps most of all we need a commitment from state and federal fisheries managers that the same high conservation standard that tribal fisheries are held to will be applied to all other fisheries. That includes making the tough decision to close some fisheries to protect returning salmon for everyone.
Lorraine Loomis is the Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.