UPDATED AT BOTTOM WITH WDFW PRESS RELEASE ON TODAY’S COMMISSION TELECONFERENCE
Pointing to the successful restoration of Snake River fall Chinook from the edge of extinction, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner called for a new conservation hatchery program on the Stillaguamish.
It would rear more kings as habitat work is done in the Snohomish County watershed where the stock is having trouble rebuilding itself despite fishery cuts over the decades and which has been identified as a major constraint in the proposed Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.
His plan would need funding from the state legislature and buy-in from the Stillaguamish Tribe, which already operates a facility on the river.
But commissioners are trying to show the angling public that there are ways to mitigate the feared impacts of the controversial 10-year plan that’s been in the news so much of late.
In a nutshell, McIsaac explained that after construction of the four dams on the lower Snake River, fall Chinook returns dropped to just 78 wild fish in 1990.
But through joint tribal-state-federal efforts — along with habitat and river flow improvements — the run has been rebuilt to as high as 60,000 hatchery and wild kings past Lower Granite Dam in recent years, and sport and tribal anglers have been able to fish for and harvest the salmon.
Basically, eggs were taken from Snake kings and reared at WDFW’s Kalama Falls Hatchery for a couple generations. The progeny of those were then returned to the Snake.
McIsaac termed it “a successful example of a conservation hatchery helping out while habitat is worked on.”
He acknowledged that building a larger conservation hatchery on the Stilly would take time, so he suggested using existing state facilities as bridges.
And he stressed that the Stillaguamish Tribe would need to be amenable to it.
Of note, the extirpation of the basin’s Chinook is a nonstarter for the tribe and Washington.
McIsaac also touched on the 900-pound gorilla in the room, the “severe” predation on Chinook in Puget Sound by increasing numbers of MMPA-protected seals and sea lions that is “not being addressed.”
He said that pinnipeds are picking off tens of millions of the salmon as they leave the rivers as smolts, swim through the estuaries and out of the inland sea before returning after several years as adults.
“So in some ways it’s no wonder we’ve seen no rebound in fish numbers,” McIsaac said.
And he challenged WDFW staff to come up with a “genuine habitat restoration plan” for the Stillaguamish Basin too.
Ultimately, it all gives the agency negotiating tools as work continues on the Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan, etc.
McIsaac also said a better job needs to be done communicating with the angling public on the plan, and asked WDFW staffers to put out a press release following today’s teleconference that would in part put out “true facts” on the plan’s impacts and “dispel rumors and exaggerations.”
He said that allegations that Puget Sound would be closed for salmon fishing for 10 years “are just not true.”
That said, in years of low runs, both state and tribal fisheries could be restricted in places as federal overseers lower acceptable risks on the stocks.
But there have been some indications that the plan will not be used as a blueprint for designing 2018 fisheries, meaning the reduced impact rates may not have to be applied this season. NMFS has numerous problems with what the state and tribes have come up with for many basins and the plan may not be approved until the 2020 season.
WDFW has been hobbled talking about the plan to a degree because of the nature of the closed-door negotiations between the state and tribes in a federal court that left the commission and angling public out. They have made little effort to explain it to us, and so the plan has been picked apart by their own retired experts as well as radio show hosts and others.
“It’s important that we try to improve the communications as we go through this,” McIsaac urged.
At the commission’s meeting in Ridgefield on Friday, Ron Warren, the agency’s Fish Program Manager, acknowledged that public trust with WDFW had been “eroded” and he apologized to anglers in attendance and across the state for that.
Seven of the commission’s nine members were in on today’s conference call, and McIsaac’s proposals drew very strong support from Vice Chair Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon.
“We have a crisis on our hands here and we have to show leadership on the issue,” he said.
Carpenter, who is a former owner of Master Marine, had lobbied for another teleconference earlier this month in hopes of being able to share “perhaps something positive” with stakeholders before the big upcoming Seattle Boat Show “so it’s not a total disaster.”
Others were in support of McIsaac’s ideas, though caution was expressed about certain facets, including sending a letter to the governor asking for $5 million for the new hatchery, whether $5 million was a realistic figure, the potential for litigation over pinnipeds from “protection organizations,” McIsaac’s “off ramp” for fishery restrictions if runs improve, and the fact that the Stilly isn’t the only Chinook basin with problems — there’s also the Nooksack, among others, so what about them?
But it’s a start.
Ultimately, the commission did not vote on any specific resolution as, according to WDFW Director Jim Unsworth, staff had enough direction to work with.
THE FOLLOWING IS A WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE PRESS RELEASE
Commission advises WDFW on chinook plan that would guide Puget Sound salmon fisheries
OLYMPIA – The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission advised state fishery managers to strike a better balance between conservation and harvest opportunities as they work with tribal co-managers to revise a proposed plan for managing chinook harvest in Puget Sound.
During a conference call Tuesday, the commission – a citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) – instructed state fishery managers to explore a variety of options as they revisit catch rates and other pieces of the updated Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.
The plan defines conservation goals for state and tribal fisheries that have an impact on wild Puget Sound chinook salmon, which are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under that law, no fisheries affecting Puget Sound chinook can occur without a conservation plan approved by NOAA Fisheries.
“Ultimately, we would all like to see salmon runs restored in Puget Sound, but severely restricting fisheries isn’t the only path to achieving that goal,” said Brad Smith, chair of the commission. “For that reason, we advised WDFW staff to explore other salmon recovery options, including improvements to habitat and hatchery operations.”
State and treaty tribal co-managers initially submitted the proposed plan to NOAA Fisheries on Dec. 1, 2017. The plan would reduce state and tribal fisheries in Washington, especially in years with expected low salmon returns. For example, increased protections for wild chinook salmon returning to the Stillaguamish and Snohomish rivers would likely restrict numerous fisheries because those fish are caught in many areas of Puget Sound.
Despite the restrictive nature of the plan, NOAA has already informed the state and treaty tribes that the plan is insufficient, noting that several key salmon stocks would not meet new — more restrictive — federal conservation objectives.
“Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from many people who are concerned this plan could result in the closure of all Puget Sound sport fisheries, but that’s not the case,” Smith said. “Yes, the plan does call for reductions to some fisheries, especially in years of low salmon abundance. But we have an opportunity – given the need to revise the plan – to use various mitigation tools to offset impacts from fisheries when and where appropriate.”
Mitigation tools the commission asked WDFW to explore include:
Increasing habitat restoration efforts.
Improving hatchery operations, including increasing production to support salmon recovery efforts.
Reducing populations of predators, such as seals and sea lions.
NOAA has indicated its review process will take 18 months once the federal agency deems the plan is sufficient for a full review, making it likely the 10-year plan won’t be in place until the 2020-2021 fishing season. There will be opportunities for public comment during that review process.
State fishery managers believe that a long-term management plan will reduce uncertainty in the annual salmon season-setting process, providing more stability for recreational and commercial fisheries.
In the meantime, state and tribal co-managers are working on conservation objectives to guide this year’s salmon season-setting process. During its call Tuesday, the commission asked state fishery managers to continue to discuss the possibility of using the 2017 conservation objectives for this year’s upcoming planning efforts.
The commission directed state fishery managers to provide regular updates as the negotiations of this year’s objectives and the 10-year plan continue. State fishery managers will also provide updates throughout the process to citizen advisors during open public meetings.