Pink salmon retention is closing after today on Snohomish system rivers due to a very low return so far.
“‘Whoa, where’s all the pinks?'” WDFW district fisheries biologist Jenni Whitney says she’s hearing from stream surveyors.
She says that in places like the Skykomish-Snoqualmie confluence, where in past years massive “crescents” of pinks gathered, this year they’re counting individual fish.
“They’re seeing 10s and 20s, not in the hundreds or thousands,” she says.
At another gauge for the run, Sunset Falls, just 904 have been passed upstream into the South Fork Sky.
At roughly this same time in 2011, 21,000 had.
In 2013, 46,000.
Whitney says this week and next is the typical peak of the run.
Perhaps they’ve been holding off from entering the river due to the lack of rain until this past Sunday, but a limited Tulalip directed coho fishery near the mouth turned up only a “handful” of pinks as well.
A minimal number were likely intercepted by recreational anglers in Puget Sound, judging by all the goose eggs in the pink salmon column, though closures of Areas 8 and 9 also affected that.
Whitney can’t say for certain how many are in the system, but says “it’s looking a lot less” than the escapement goal of 120,000.
So as of Friday, the Snohomish, Skykomish and Snoqualmie Rivers will close for the wild stock to try and get as many back on the gravel as possible.
The closure follows on a similar one in the Nooksack Basin announced earlier this month.
Coho retention will remain open.
The Snohomish is historically one of Puget Sound’s strongest systems, but this year’s forecast of 171,000 pinks was the fewest expected to return since 1997.
You can trace this year’s poor showing back to 2015, when the odd-year salmon’s parents came in to spawn.
A reconstruction of that year’s run shows that the escapement of 91,000 was the lowest in nearly two decades. What’s more, those fish were undersized and less fecund.
As eggs, this year’s fish were hit by four large floods in fall 2015, starting with one on Halloween that flooded Sultan.
And then they entered the saltwater with the ocean still “hungover” from the Blob.
“Single events can knock them down hard when combined with marine conditions,” notes WDFW salmon policy analyst Aaron Dufault in Olympia.
To the north, Canadian salmon managers now expect half the forecasted Fraser pinks to return. Dufault says that pessimistic estimates for how well the run would survive at sea may not have been pessimistic enough.
Skagit system fisheries biologist Brett Barkdull has been out surveying his system and finding bad signs as well.
“We are past the peak now of spawning in the major tributaries like the Cascade River, Illabot Creek, Bacon Creek, etc., and the counts are the lowest I’ve seen — and I’ve seen the two record low escapements on the Skagit of 60,000,” he says. “The mainstem Skagit from Concrete to Gorge Dam had a live count of 17,000 total today. Just the fact that we could count live fish means that we don’t have very many. Usually on a year with even, say, 300,000, we don’t even try to live count. I don’t know, at this point if we don’t end up with a new record low escapement estimate on the Skagit I’ll be surprised.”
In King County, biologist Aaron Bosworth is waiting for fall survey data to come in to say anything definitive.
“The forecast for Green River was 100,000 to 150,000, a low pink return relative to previous pink years. Seems like the run may have been below this forecast, though. We’ll count them on the spawning grounds over the next month or two and get a better sense for what came back,” he says. “Seems like anglers had a hard time catching them and folks think there may have not been very many around.”
Back on the Snohomish, Whitney says fishermen are asking the same questions as her stream surveyors: “‘Where are the pinks? We’re not catching pinks.'”
But everyone knows that closing humpy retention is in the best interest of conserving the stock in hopes of an eventual return to those “happy days,” as Whitney calls them, when the river’s banks are lined with anglers “hooping and hollering” and fighting pinks on little pink fishing rods.
It took Skagit pinks six years, or three runs, to recover from October 20, 2003’s whopper flood.