2017 Puget Sound Salmon Forecasts Unveiled

EDITOR’S NOTE: FINAL UPDATE 3:45 P.M., FEB. 28, 2017, WITH WDFW PRESS RELEASE AT BOTTOM

Puget Sound coho are forecast to bounce back this year to within 6 percent of the recent 10-year average, with more than double the number of silvers than predicted in 2016 expected to return in 2017.

That doesn’t mean we’ll see a return to pre-2015 fisheries, but it at least provides more operating room for creating seasons than 2016’s highly constrained conditions.

WDFW reports that 559,045 coho are expected to return to tribs stretching from the western Strait of Juan de Fuca, down Hood Canal, across the North Sound and into deep South Sound.

Last year saw a preseason forecast of 255,403 wild and hatchery coho, which led to closures on almost all of the saltwater and many rivers until it became clear in late summer and early fall that there was enough to sustain sport and tribal fisheries in select areas.

PUGET SOUND COHO ANGLERS CAN CRACK A SMILE OF RELIEF AT THIS YEAR’S FORECAST. MITCH GRINDLY CAUGHT THIS ONE WITH FRIEND DEVIN SCHILDT DURING 2014’S FISHERY, BEFORE THE BLOB ATE INTO TWO YEARS OF RETURNS. (FISHING PHOTO CONTEST)

The forecasts come from documents posted by WDFW this morning as part of the annual North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process.

Figures for Columbia River runs, which have been previously reported on, as well as Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor and North Coast rivers were also released today.

Overall, this year’s salmon forecast is a reflection of poor to improving ocean conditions and 2015’s drought, and ongoing habitat issues, and crafting seasons will pose challenges and offer opportunities for managers and anglers who remember good-old-days fisheries of just a few short years ago.

“The Chinook and coho salmon forecasts for this summer’s fisheries lack fanfare,” said Tony Floor, fishing affairs director of the Northwest Marine Trade Association. “There are regions requiring conservation and other regions providing fishing opportunities. Smart anglers will do their homework and migrate to the opportunities. Unfortunately, we have been spoiled by great fishing seasons during the last 10 years, however, following the tough 2016 season, 2017 appears to provide a step back in the right direction.”

Over the coming month, state fishery managers will take the numbers to sport anglers, then meet with tribal managers before a final decision (fingers crossed!) is scheduled for mid-April. Last year’s negotiations went long before the comanagers were able to agreement on Puget Sound fisheries.

But back to highlights from today’s forecasts.

They show 45,332 coho back to the Nooksack, up from last year’s prediction of 24,565; 116,777 to the Snohomish, up from 18,549; 43,776 to the Green, up from 8,970; 20,378 to Lake Washington, up from 4,414; and 27,511 to the Puyallup, up from 9,182.

Though many of the 2016 forecasts were later found to be off, look at them as a baseline for comparison with this year.

“Definitely better than last year,” confirms WDFW’s Kyle Addicks.

He says that after 2016’s low expectations following a “horrible” 2015, the forecasts fall close to the average return over the last decade.

Unfortunately, however, Skagit and Stilly coho still appear to be in a pretty rough place, per the preseason forecasts. On the former river, managers estimate 18,711 this year, with about half that returning to the latter.

Those figures dip into critical territory and that could constrain fisheries where those stocks mingle with others.

Over in Hood Canal, 154,629 coho are forecast, versus 118,787 in 2016. In a rarity, the Quilcene prediction is down by roughly 12,000 versus last year, 29,000 versus 41,000, but returns further south in the fjord are up compared to this same point last go-around.

There’s also an uptick in Puget Sound summer and fall Chinook numbers, 193,962 versus the 165,150 predicted last year.

“Hatchery forecasts don’t look bad,” says Adicks.

A lot of that comes from Lower South Sound, which make up more than half of the overall forecast, some 85,125 kings, including 22,669 to the Nisqually and 18,341 to the Deschutes.

The Skokomish forecast is also up, 27,729 versus the 24,377 last year that were unfishable in the river due to a tribal land claim that blocked sport anglers from accessing salmon returning to the state hatchery in freshwater, though a four-fish bag was added in the salt of southern Hood Canal.

North Sound Chinook numbers are about the same as last year, with 54,523 expected from the Nooksack down to the Snohomish, but around 9,000 more are forecast in the Upper South Sound tribs from Lake Washington to the Puyallup, with the Puyallup expected to see about 4,749.

What that means for fisheries in Marine Areas 9 and 10 in Central Puget Sound is hard to say at this point, says Adicks. While the numbers of fin-clipped kings look good, this year managers are using a new fishery modeling tool — you’ll likely hear the acronym FRAM thrown around and cursed a lot in the coming weeks — that updates assumptions about ocean conditions, abundances and survival from the 1970s and ’80s to the late 2000s and into the 2010s.

Adicks says that the comanagers are reviewing stock objectives to plug into the model, but he didn’t know yet what sort of affect it would have on fisheries until that work was done.

Baker Lake sockeye numbers are slightly below last year’s forecast, but still good at 47,000, though once again Lake Washington reds are offering dim hopes of an opener, what with only 77,292 expected and no real impetus to lower the escapement goal from 350,000 to 100,000.

Odd-year pinks are forecast to come in on the lower end, with 1,150,522 forecast, including 382,301 to the Puyallup, 171, 632 to the Snohomish and 118,689 to the Green.

By contrast, in 2015, the forecast called for 6,778,025 humpies, and while fishing for them was red-hot off of Everett in August of that year, ultimately the run was low and appears to not have reproduced as well as we’ve come to expect over the past decade and a half as the species has boomed and colonized new waters in the Whulge.

WDFW points out this year’s class of pinks are the progeny of parents that came in during 2015’s drought, saw their redds scoured by a number of high-water events that fall, and then saw “very poor” fry outmigrations in late winter 2016, which is the driver behind the 2017 forecast.

Indeed, there may be no more Mother Nature-scarred salmon than those that have been alive the past few years.

A corresponding presentation made to those attending today’s briefing highlights the extreme oceanic, freshwater, atmospheric and habitat challenges that have been faced by this year’s crop of salmon, either in the gravel, at sea or returning to warm, low rivers. It speaks to the Blob we saw in the North Pacific in 2014 and 2015, major shifts in salmon forage, emaciated coho and sockeye, and the appearance of unusual species off the Northwest Coast and in the Gulf of Alaska.

The effects have cut sharply across species, leading to last year’s lowest return on record of sockeye to the Fraser River … which also saw the highest return of chum in 20 years.

Speaking of chum, the forecast for Puget Sound fall stocks call for 1,070,968, which is in the ballpark of last year’s predicition. Winter chum which return to the Nisqually, however, are down, 36,696 versus the forecast of 47,053.

Beyond Pugetropolis, state and tribal managers appear not to have reached an agreement on the size of the Grays Harbor coho forecasts, nor fall kings. The gulf between WDFW’s and the Quinault Nation’s GH silver forecasts is described as “cavernous,” with the state initially predicting four times as many as the tribe.

But the comanagers expect 198,115 coho to the rest of the North and South Coast tribs, up from 159,452 for all the streams in 2016.

The Willapa Bay Chinook expectation is 38,506, including 34,328 hatchery kings.

And there are somewhere north of 1 million Columbia-bound fall Chinook and coho expected.

In the next few weeks managers will outline coastal salmon fishery options, and there’s at least one good sign for a more robust coho season than 2016, when Areas 2, 3 and 4 were closed, thanks to a Queets forecast that does provide escapement and a bit more.

Adicks admits to being simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about this year’s forecasts. They could be better, but there are bright spots — Baker sockeye, Columbia fall kings, and a better coho outlook.

“I’m optimistic we’re not in for a replay of last year,” he says, referring to the breakdown of state-tribal negotiations over Puget Sound fisheries that dragged out through April and deep into May, and saw some tribes able to fish for spring Chinook through a BIA-approved permit while sport anglers stood on the bank until mid-June as NMFS chewed through the details of the season package and issued a permit to fish.

Adicks says tribes weren’t happy with the outcome either, and that the comanagers have been working together earlier this go-around at North of Falcon.

He says that WDFW will be looking for public input as it shapes potential fisheries. For a schedule of meetings, go here.

Here’s hoping for a better resolution and more than enough fish to go around.

………………………………………………………..

THE FOLLOWING IS A PRESS RELEASE FROM THE WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

Returns of hatchery chinook and coho salmon to Washington’s rivers and ocean waters are expected to vary this year, but low returns of wild salmon projected to several rivers will again make setting fisheries a challenge.

That was the prediction of fishery managers at a public meeting today, when forecasts for chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink salmon were released.

The forecasts were developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and treaty tribes.

The forecast meeting in Olympia marks the starting point for developing 2017 salmon-fishing seasons in Puget Sound, the Columbia River and Washington coastal areas. Fishery managers have scheduled a series of public meetings through early April before they plan to finalize seasons later that month.

Unfavorable environmental conditions, such as warm ocean water or flooding in rivers, have reduced the number of salmon returning to Washington’s waters, especially when compared to some of the more abundant returns of recent years, said Kyle Adicks, salmon fisheries policy lead for WDFW.

“Some salmon runs are expected to return in higher numbers over last year, when we forecast historic low numbers for several stocks,” Adicks said.

“But, for the most part, forecasts are at about average or lower than average, which means we will once again need to limit fisheries in some areas to protect weak returns of wild fish.”

Coho returns to several Puget Sound-area rivers, such as the Skagit and Stillaguamish, are projected to be extremely low, which will limit opportunities for salmon fishing overall.

The total forecast of 559,000 Puget Sound coho is down about 6 percent from the 10-year average, although it represents an increase from last year’s forecast.

Similarly, some chinook fisheries in Puget Sound will be limited this year due to low returns of wild chinook to rivers, such as the Stillaguamish, Nooksack and Dungeness.

The forecast for wild chinook is down 10 percent from last year while the forecast for Puget Sound hatchery chinook is 166,000 fish, up 27 percent from the 2016 forecast.

Farther south, about 386,000 Columbia River coho are projected to return this year, which is similar to last year’s forecast.

Only 223,000 coho actually returned last year to the Columbia River, where some coho stocks are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

About 582,600 fall chinook salmon are expected to return to the Columbia River, which is similar to last year’s actual return. While that’s significantly lower than the record 1.3 million fish that returned in 2015, this year’s forecast is considered a fairly good run of fall chinook, Adicks said.

Roughly 260,000 “upriver brights” are headed for areas of the Columbia River above Bonneville Dam. The forecast for these fall chinook is the lowest since 2009.

About 250,000 hatchery chinook are expected to return this year to the lower Columbia River – nearly 124,000 more fish than actually returned last year.

Those salmon, known as “tules,” are the backbone of the recreational ocean chinook fishery. For the most part, tules are doing well considering recent unfavorable ocean conditions, Adicks said.

Meanwhile, this year’s run of pink salmon, which mostly return to Washington’s waters only in odd-numbered years, is expected to be about 80 percent lower than the 10-year average.

About 1.15 million pink salmon are forecast to return to Puget Sound this year.

On a more positive note, roughly 47,000 sockeye are expected to return to the Baker River, a tributary of the Skagit River, making sockeye fisheries in Baker Lake and the Skagit River a possibility, Adicks said.

“This is going to be another challenging year for setting salmon fishing seasons,” Adicks said. “We’ll rely heavily on input from the public to set priorities for fisheries.”

Adicks encourages anglers, commercial fishers and others interested in Washington state salmon fisheries to attend one of nearly 20 public meetings scheduled on setting salmon seasons.

A meeting schedule, salmon forecasts, and information about the salmon season-setting process are available on WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/northfalcon/. An online commenting tool will be available on the website later this week.

State, tribal and federal fishery managers will meet March 8-13 in Vancouver, Wash., with the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) to develop options for this year’s commercial and recreational ocean chinook and coho salmon fisheries.

The PFMC establishes fishing seasons in ocean waters three to 200 miles off the Pacific coast.

Additional public meetings have been scheduled into April to discuss regional fishery issues. Input from these regional discussions will be considered as the season-setting process moves into the “North of Falcon” and PFMC meetings, which will determine the final 2017 salmon seasons.

The PFMC is expected to adopt final ocean fishing seasons and harvest levels at its April 7-11 meeting in Sacramento, Calif. The 2017 salmon fisheries package for Washington’s inside waters is expected to be completed by the state and tribal co-managers during the PFMC’s April meeting.

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