A state fisheries biologist is defending his coho limit increase on the Skagit earlier this week, a decision that was strongly panned by some in the angling community.
When an inseason update showed 90,000 of the fall salmon would return to the big North Sound river, up from 73,000 predicted last winter, Brett Barkdull was able to double the bag from two to four.
That’s the “normal” limit on these waters when runs are up, a good sign for fish and fisheries.
The change effectively means that fishermen can now keep as many as four hatchery coho, though the limit on wild fish still remains two.
But coming so relatively late in the run, anglers believe that most of the clipped coho are already well upstream on the way to Marblemount Hatchery, so to some it felt like too little, too late — a token offering that will push everyone into the few holes above Rockport for riper fish
Barkdull maintains that the coho are still in “great shape” in the Skagit, though a little darker in the Cascade.
Looking at last year’s escapement report, just 218 had entered the facility as of this week, with the count jumping to 2,200 by the end of October and 5,561 by Thanksgiving. Hatchery managers ended up surplussing 4,869 of those.
Run timing does vary year to year, but so far this fall 1,260 coho have made it to Marblemount, and Barkdull expects a lot more.
“We do not need 15,000 at the hatchery. Huge waste. People should go catch them,” he says.
Fifteen thousand is his own back-of-the-donut-napkin estimate based on downstream test catches.
For Barkdull, who was surprised by outcry, it is a damned-whatever-you-do proposition. He says he is pushed to increase hatchery limits, but when he can do so through inseason testing and management agreements, he gets second guessed.
Yet for others it all felt like just a way for the tribes to get more netting days in, on wild fish.
Barkdull says it wasn’t a trade with the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattles.
“We are simply following the comprehensive coho management agreement we signed with the tribes. The four, no more than two wilds, is our ‘normal’ limit on the Skagit, so that’s what we went to when coho numbers were updated to the normal range,” he says.
That “normal” limit was in effect during the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons, per the printed regs.
While coho fishing that third year had to be closed when it became clear the fish weren’t coming back, in 2016, when a season wasn’t even in the pamphlet, WDFW was able to open the Skagit via e-reg when joint tribal-state testing found they were abundant enough to allow harvest at the normal level.
That was the year that inseason management was under a white-hot spotlight, with anglers rallying to get WDFW to open rivers via the tool.
On the one hand, it is great that people like us are watching out for salmon runs, as The Blob and its hangover have dealt serious harm to multiple year-classes of fish.
We learned a lesson: If ever there was a time for caution, recent years have shown the importance of banking spawners, and I don’t mean hauling them ashore.
But on the other, the banks that are our rivers are different than financial institutions, as the fishy kind are limited by how much spawning gravel there is to deposit on.
On the Skagit system, there is room for 40,000 adult coho, given habitat capacity and typical egg and fry survival rates, Barkdull says.
His best guess is that 55,000 will try to spawn this fall.
“Plenty,” he says.
Even as anglers like you and I want as many fish back as possible and will limit our trips and take-home to that end, “Realistically, we don’t need 70,000 on the spawning grounds,” Barkdull says.
He says the maximum sustained yield set for the Skagit is 25,000.