Adopting a new Puget Sound Chinook plan that could further decrease the region’s salmon angling won’t save fall kings in a highly degraded watershed, where the stock appears to be less and less able to naturally replace itself despite 30 years of restrictions.
That’s the nut of another analysis of comanagers’ 10-year harvest management plan now out for federal review.
Headlined “WDFW Gives Up Puget Sound Fishing… For Nothing,” the pro-sportsfishing blog Tidal Exchange focused on the Stillaguamish River’s highly constraining Chinook, concluding that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Sound tribes’ proposal is worse than the status quo for two primary reasons:
“Because it allows — for another 10 years — the continued narrative that further curtailing fishing will lead to recovery on this river”;
And it “seems likely to deliver … a negative spiral for recovery and WDFW itself” through the loss of as much as an estimated $32 million annually in economic activity due to curtailed Chinook fisheries in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and North Sound and lost angler interest.
Where a mid-December review by a retired longtime WDFW salmon expert focused on that potential “tighter noose” on fisheries, in this new one, authors Curt Kraemer and Brian Fleming look at the Stilly’s underlying and overwhelming habitat problems.
The basin does include the pristine, sheer-sided 76-square-mile Boulder River Wilderness but also hundreds of square miles of scalped heights of the North and South Forks and their ever-shifting glacial strata underneath midelevation tree farms, as well as a highly modified floodplain, presenting problems from top to bottom, from Segelsen Ridge to Port Susan.
The authors use the analogy that before settlement, the Stillaguamish watershed was a 5-gallon bucket that produced runs of 50,000 Chinook, but with farming, diking, logging and development, the bucket can now only hold a pint of water.
Between tribally produced hatchery and natural-origin fall kings, returns have declined from around 900 in 1988 to 700 in 2015, according to a graph directly from the management plan, which was posted at this time last month and which we first reported on.
Because Puget Sound Chinook are listed under the Endangered Species Act, Washington managers have federal overseers looking over their shoulders asking how they’re going to protect them.
With the fisheries that impact Stilly kings the most outside of state control — namely off Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Alaska — the only way currently to get more back on the gravel is to reduce fisheries here.
Yet it’s a catch-22 — even fully curbing those would yield “surprisingly few … perhaps a dozen” more spawners, the authors write.
I know this will come across as the equivalent of the radio stations that last month switched to a Christmas format and put “Sleigh Ride” by The Spice Girls on heavy rotation until you couldn’t stand it, but the fix really does come down to one thing.
“Unless and until we repair the bucket, the habitat, we’re never going to see those numbers again,” the authors argue.
Furthermore, Kraemer — who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after decades as a fisheries biologist in charge of the Stilly among other rivers — and Fleming say that by reducing Chinook fishing even further, you “end up losing the most engaged and enthusiastic resource we have — which is the tens of thousands of license buyers” — who could otherwise muster up the public support as well as manpower for habitat fixes.
That in itself will be a pretty tall order because it’s not easy to convince people that there really is a habitat problem for Chinook in such a beautiful, bucolic valley, one of postcard views, tidy farms, and a smaller human population, relatively speaking.
Yet there is, as salmon production here shows.
The authors call for anglers to write to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission and urge members of the citizen oversight panel to confirm with other experts that their biological arguments are sound, “as the social and economic implications of the proposed Puget Sound fisheries changes are enormous.”
Meanwhile, the commission will be briefed by WDFW staff about said plan at their upcoming meeting in Ridgefield.
Kyle Adicks, intergovernmental salmon advisor, is scheduled to speak beginning at 1:20 p.m. on Jan. 19. It’ll be a chance for agency brass to defend the plan.
At least one commissioner has already voiced displeasure with it.
Vice Chair Larry Carpenter told Director Jim Unsworth that for such a potentially weighty document, it was “an unacceptable practice” to not brief the commission during its behind-closed-doors, federal-judge-mediated development.
The plan is now being reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service for midspring 2019 approval, but WDFW has stated it wants to implement it starting with 2018 salmon seasons.