It turns out that my best idea for solving aggravating Baker sockeye harvest inequities would cost on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars — money WDFW doesn’t exactly have at the moment — and require round-the-clock monitoring so thieves don’t steal valuable parts.
In-river sonar that counts salmon, like what’s used on the Fraser and in Alaska, before they reach North Sound tribal nets in the Skagit and sport hooks there and up at Baker Lake could yield better data on relative run strength than the preseason prediction now used to set fisheries and hope the fish come in.
Forecasts the past few years have been as much as 33 percent too high, leading to a 19,000-plus-fish disparity between the fleets, and that’s been rubbing recreational anglers the wrong way since 2017.
This coming Saturday morning the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will again hear about the issue, and fishermen are being called on to attend the meeting in Bellingham.
“Whenever the actual run is less than the preseason forecast the tribes wind up with more sockeye,” said angler advocate Frank Urabeck, who was rallying anglers on The Outdoor Line radio show on Seattle’s 710 ESPN last weekend.
Currently, the best way to tell how well the run is tracking versus the prediction made the previous winter is how many are showing up at the Baker River trap, minus tribal and plunkers’ catches. The time it takes the fish to swim to the trap limits the effectiveness of inseason actions. And when fewer show up than expected, it means less are put into Baker Lake, where the primary sport fishery is.
So one of the ideas Uraback is pitching is to use a run forecast buffer, like what is done with spring Chinook on the Columbia River. Thirty percent is chopped off the best guess of biologists to set fisheries before the halfway point of the run is reached as a check against overharvesting a weaker than expected return.
He also suggests “following year payback” — adjusting harvests the next season to even out overages the previous one.
That’s similar to how Puget Sound crabbing is managed and why this past summer saw an early closure in Area 10. There, last year’s Dungeness quota was 40,000 pounds, but sport crabbers harvested more than 46,000 pounds, and so through “buyback provisions” in negotiated state-tribal agreements, that dropped this year’s allowable take to 33,212 pounds.
Urabeck, a retired Army Corps engineer, also suggests managers use their “professional judgment” inseason to adjust the forecast.
“We again are asking that the Commission direct (WDFW) to give Baker sockeye harvest equity a high priority for the 2020 season, engaging the three Skagit Basin tribes on behalf of sport fishing license holders in a transparent manner that allows the public to track the discussions,” he said.
The sockeye fishery, particularly in the lake, has become more important in recent years with low returns to the Brewster Pool on the other side of the North Cascades and the decline of Lake Washington.
Sportfishing occurs off the banks of the lower Skagit between Mount Vernon and Gilligan Creek, and in Baker Lake, while three tribes net from the forks of the Skagit up to Mount Vernon, and from Gilligan Creek up to the Baker River, and the Swinomish in the salt to their preseason share.
Most of the nontribal catch occurs in the lake — 10,080 in 2015, according to one set of WDFW catch stats, versus 800 in the river.
With Urabeck and others pushing, Washington’s fish commission has been tracking the issue since at least October 2017, and last fall there was a workshop at WDFW’s Mill Creek office. On Saturday commissioners will be updated on the 2019 season and how harvest inequity issues are being addressed by state staff.
“The department absolutely thinks this is a worthwhile endeavor to find a solution that the state and tribes can live with,” say Aaron Dufault, a WDFW anadromous resources policy analyst in Olympia.
Even as it was off by a third this year, a new forecasting tool he and the biologists came up with and which uses environmental factors in the North Pacific is tracking better than the old model, which called for a return of nearly 60,000 sockeye in 2019.
Only 22,440 actually hit the mouth of the Skagit.
Yet Dufault acknowledges that the new model’s overprediction means there is “a little bit more room for improvement.”
He cautions that while ideas like Urabeck’s would impact tribal harvests and represent hurdles that would need to be overcome, WDFW is working with the Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattles and Upper Skagits to get an agreed-to harvest sharing dataset in place for 2020, as well as improve communications between the parties.
Because sockeye are seldom pursued much less caught in saltwater like Chinook, coho and pinks, it’s one of few fisheries where recreational anglers fish behind the tribal guys.
Since 2010, the tribes have harvested 134,035 Baker sockeye, sport anglers 113,074, according to Dufault’s commission presentation.
We caught more in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015, years when more fish came back than were forecast; they caught more in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, years the prediction was too high, the presentation shows.
The disparity since 2017 is 37,864 to 18,782, according to the presentation.
An uptick in marine survival could turn things around quickly, Dufault notes.
He says there are payback provisions in an overarching Puget Sound salmon management document, but that they’re not a silver bullet either as they haven’t been used in “a couple decades.”
Still, it’s an option and one that could have an impact but would have to be agreed to too via the North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process.
But what if everybody had a better, more accurate gauge of run strength, aka in-river sonar?
Dufault calls it “a really cool tool,” and says it could solve a lot of the issues around the inequity.
He adds that the units also cost on the order of a couple hundred thousand dollars — tens of thousands of dollars if rented — and they require pretty specialized operators to perform real-time analysis, another cost.
He says that on the larger Fraser in Southwest British Columbia, five or six people are needed for daily number crunching, and someone has to be onsite 24-7 to guard the valuable equipment used to scan the river.
Needless to say, with WDFW’s current budget issues, the agency has other stated priorities in its whopping $26 million supplemental request to lawmakers. And sonar would need to have tribal buy-in.
Meanwhile, Urabeck is pessimistic about next year’s sockeye run and Puget Sound salmon fisheries, adding importance to Baker Lake, which he speculates “may be one of the few places salmon anglers can troll in 2020.”
“Many sport fishing license holders are giving serious thought to leaving this sport. We must have a reason to continue which only fishing opportunity can provide,” he says.
As it stands, WDFW does report that hatchery fry production in the Baker is increasing, with north of 9 million released in 2019, up from 6 million just four years ago and 2.5 million in 2009.
With sockeye clearly going to be around in the Skagit system for the foreseeable future and representing an important fishery for the state and three North Sound tribes, it behooves the parties to come to an equitable solution.
Saturday’s Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting comes to order at 8 a.m., with sockeye on the docket at 9 a.m. Public comment will be taken after Dufault’s presentation.
The meeting is in the Chuckanut Room at the Holiday Inn, 4260 Mitchell Way, across from the airport.