Tag Archives: harbor seals

WDFW Commission Denies Petition To Restrict Popular Skykomish Fisheries

A utility district’s petition to restrict bait fishing for half the year and delay the opening of the summer Chinook and steelhead season on Washington’s Skykomish was rebuffed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission late last week.

That left local anglers like Mark Spada breathing a sigh of relief for the moment.

“The sportfishing community worked very hard to educate the commission to the importance of this last-of-its-kind fishing opportunity for the North Sound,” said the president of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club. “Thankfully they listened, and voted to deny this uninformed petition by the PUD.”

KRISTIN BISHOP SHOWS OFF A NICE SKYKOMISH SUMMER CHINOOK CAUGHT IN JUNE 2017. A UTILITY DISTRICT’S REQUEST TO RESTRICT GEAR AND SEASON TIMING ON THE RIVER WOULD “SIGNIFICANTLY AFFECT” ITS FISHERIES FOR HATCHERY KINGS AND STEELHEAD. (THEFISHERE.COM)

But the citizen panel did ask WDFW to consider the request during the upcoming North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process, where fishing rules for 2020-21 will be determined through preseason forecasting and consultations with tribal comanagers before approval by federal overseers.

The petition came from the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which is concerned about wild steelhead recovery in the watershed, where it operates a dam it has to mitigate for.

Speaking for the utility, fisheries biologist Larry Lowe asked the state agency to enact selective gear regulations from July 15 through January 31 and push the summer opener back two to three weeks to June 15.

Lowe said that despite enhancement projects on the Skykomish and its tributary the Sultan, where PUD’s dam, hydropower facilities and reservoir are, native winter-run returns have declined to “an alarmingly low level,” with just 178 and 55 back to the mainstems of both rivers, respectively, this year.

And he said that the fishery for hatchery kings and summer-runs is impacting pre- and postspawn wild winters, as well as outmigrating smolts.

“Wild salmon and steelhead face many complex and costly challenges on the road to recovery. The requested rule changes are neither complex nor costly and will continue to provide ample fishing opportunity for recreational anglers as well as provide the resource protections needed for species recovery,” Lowe wrote.

But WDFW’s regional fisheries manager Edward Eleazer says the fishery comes in well below allowable impacts, and he points to greater threats to the steelhead stock than angling.

“Major pressures for steelhead are harbor seals, habitat degradation and climate change,” he told the commission during its Nov. 15 conference call.

The pinnipeds have been identified as eating large numbers of outmigrating salmonids in Puget Sound.

PUD’s Diversion and Culmback Dams have blocked all fish passage to most of the Sultan for decades, and much of the Sultan and Skykomish watersheds outside of three wilderness areas have been heavily logged, dumping sediment into the rivers. In the valley, dikes armor banks to protect the BNSF rail line, farms and towns.

Eleazer pointed out to commissioners that the Skykomish fishery is operated under a comanager agreement, and is authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have a maximum impact of 4.2 percent on wild winter steelhead.

“Recent estimates by NOAA say we’re more like 1.6 percent, so the impacts on steelhead are negligible and not severe like the petitioner is claiming,” Eleazer said.

He said the proposed rule changes would “significantly affect hatchery Chinook and hatchery steelhead fishing.”

It’s fair to say that the Skykomish is where anglers are digging in their heels.

“The fact that the smolt mortality and wild fish encounters were below the allowable minimums as outlined by the NOAA permit for this fishery gave PUD no legitimate case for the rule change they were petitioning for,” argues Spada.

In this era of decreased hatchery releases and salmon and steelhead fishing opportunities, the Sky is the last bastion of consumptive angling in Puget Sound. It’s the only river north of the Cowlitz where Chinook and steelhead can be kept in June and July.

It’s the river that WDFW prioritized in the Chambers Creek early winter steelhead settlement with the Wild Fish Conservancy, and it’s the one they’ve come up with a plan for saving the summer steelhead fishery out of another WFC lawsuit.

Just under 500 Chinook and 1,573 steelhead were caught on the Sky during 2017’s summer fishery, according to WDFW’s 2017 sport catch report, the most recent available, along with 1,863 winter steelhead during the fall-winter season.

While eggs and sand shrimp are popular and productive offerings for summer kings, coho, chums and both summer and winter steelhead, under selective gear rules bait and scents are prohibited. Anglers are also limited to lures with single barbless hooks (except plugs), and required to use knotless nets.

Eleazer acknowledged that PUD is an important stakeholder in fishery issues in the Skykomish watershed, and the county agency does a lot of steelhead and salmon habitat and recovery work.

“One of the reasons why they’re so alarmed, and our staff is alarmed as well, is because of the extreme drought and climate conditions that we saw in 2015,” he said. “And so the salmon and steelhead returning this year, their parents came into the system during 2015 and it wasn’t very hospitable for them to survive. Very low numbers are coming back this year because of the climate change environmental situation, so they’re kind of waving the red flag.”

That year was when the effects of The Blob — the giant pool of overly warm water in the North Pacific — really hit Northwest rivers hard, with little winter snowpack and hot air temperatures leading to an early meltout and record low flows through summer.

I chronicled those impacts in a photographic survey of the Skykomish that summer, when on July 18 the river was flowing at a mere 425 cubic feet per second, 2,700 cfs below average and twice as low as the old record minimum for the date, set back in 1940 — extraordinary numbers.

PANORAMA MODE CAPTURES THE SKYKOMISH RIVER AT PROCTOR CREEK DURING JULY 2015’S RECORD LOW FLOWS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Over on dewatered Olympic Peninsula streams, WDFW biologists observed where wild winter steelhead redds had been dug up by raccoons to get at the eggs.

Unfortunately the snow drought was followed by major fall floods. The Skykomish saw crests of 70,000, 60,000, 95,000 and 80,000 cfs at Gold Bar in a six-week period, which didn’t do salmonids any favors either.

Eleazer said that it appears PUD is more focused on recent abundance trends, and it’s true, those don’t look good.

Where once there were enough winter steelhead to hold a coveted March-April catch-and-release season on the Sky, overall Snohomish-Skykomish Basin returns have dropped from 4,132 as recently as 1998 to 1,188 in 2014 to 372 in 2018.

He said that PUD was also “very upset” about this year’s May 25 start of the Skykomish fishery, seven days earlier in the past, a change that came about through WDFW’s rule simplification efforts which affected hundreds of flowing waters statewide and moved the traditional Sky opener from June 1 to the Saturday before Memorial Day.

In 2020, the Saturday before the holiday falls on May 23; in 2021, the 29th; in 2022, the 28th, etc.

According to Eleazer PUD didn’t submit comments on the late May opener, but Lowe’s petition states that as much as 43 percent of the Sultan’s wild winter redds are dug after the 25th of the month.

And Lowe says that outmigrating steelhead, coho and Chinook smolts “are vulnerable under a May 25 opener. This would not be the case with a mid-June opener.”

PUD’s crunching of 2011 WDFW creel data shows that king and steelhead catch rates spike from June 6 to 11, consistent with the early 2000s.

(PUD)

The mouth of the Sultan, where a popular put-in/take-out is located, also acts as a thermal refuge because the tributary dumps in water that’s cooler than the Sky, Lowe says.

Hatchery steelhead haven’t been released in the Sultan in more than a decade as WDFW moved away from off-station stocking, and the agency also scaled back the period that gold mining can occur between the site of the old Diversion Dam, at river mile 9.7 and which came down in 2017, and Culmback Dam to the month of August.

Before filing their petition, Lowe and utility managers took to print and the airwaves in early June rather than work with local anglers, and that didn’t sit well with Spada, and the whole thing still doesn’t.

“It continues to mystify me why the PUD thinks that they are in control of wild fish management on the Sky, and want to point fingers of blame at the recreational fisherman when they have made no attempt to be part of the solution, or work together with all interested parties for common sense management,” he says.

Eleazer told the commission that to his knowledge, PUD has not talked with the Tulalip Tribes, which comanage fisheries in the basin, and that conversations have been limited to the utility, his agency and the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Before voting to deny the petition, Fish and Wildlife Commission members debated whether to include specific direction to WDFW staff to consider the requests during North of Falcon.

Some, like Vice Chair Barbara Baker of Olympia and Kim Thorburn of Spokane wanted to, while others like angler advocate Dave Graybill of Leavenworth said it wasn’t necessary because it was already part of NOF.

Ultimately, an amendment to do so was included in the vote denying PUD’s petition.

NOF begins again in late winter, with multiple chances to comment on any proposals that come out of it.

Seattle Outdoor Radio Host Faces $2,500 Fine For Feeding Seal A Fish Fin

A Puget Sound pier angler who involuntary fed a harbor seal his Chinook this morning won’t face a fine.

But a local radio show host who flicked a dorsal fin to another lurking like “dogs at the dinner table” to illustrate the marine mammal’s overabundance and impact on ESA-listed salmon stocks in the inland sea faces a bill that’s grown to $2,500 for doing so.

TOM NELSON WITH A BRITISH COLUMBIA CHINOOK. (TOM NELSON)

Official advice to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement: Don’t hold your breath that a check from Tom Nelson will be in the mail anytime soon.

“I. Ain’t. Payin’.” is the text the host of The Outdoor Line on Seattle’s 710 ESPN sent out last night to a fellow broadcaster.

Instead, Nelson says he’s “going to war” with the federal fishery overseers over the issue.

“NOAA has to become part of the solution to our problems and right now they are a big part of the problem!” he emailed Northwest Sportsman magazine this morning.

The same day last summer that KING 5 taped him throwing the inedible fin of a Chinook he caught to the seal at an Everett marina he got a voice mail from a federal game warden that he was on the hook for $500.

Nelson didn’t pay the fine and he recently received a registered letter from the feds upping the amount and stating that he was guilty of a “take,” according to an article on MyNorthwest.com that’s based on a 12-minute interview late this week on the Dori Monson Show.

He continues to contend that the plight of our southern resident killer whales is directly linked to too many harbor seals and sea lions eating too much of their key feedstock — Chinook.

A HARBOR SEAL STEALS A CHINOOK IN THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS OFF AN ANGLER’S LINE. (HUGH ALLEN)

Recent papers say that in the 45 years that led up to 2015, Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands and Hood Canal harbor seals and sea lions “consumed double that of resident killer whales and six times greater than the combined commercial and recreational catches,” and that harbor seals “accounted for 86.4% of the total coast wide (Chinook) smolt consumption in 2015” as their numbers mushroomed from more than 8,500 to nearly 78,000 over a 40-year period.

On Monson’s show, Nelson contrasted the speedy notice that he was initially facing a $500 fine with NOAA’s perceived foot-dragging in approving hatchery genetic management plans that lead to lawsuits by NGOs which lead to closed operations, as well as the delay of a fishery in California this year.

“NOAA can’t get their homework done for us to do fisheries, in time for the state to be insulated from litigation, and yet they can find the time to hook me for throwing a dorsal fin to a harbor seal,” Nelson said.

The two facets do represent different elements of NOAA’s large workload, one of which is enforcing the Congressionally approved Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Under it a “take” not only includes killing or trying to kill a seal or sea lion, but feeding or attempting to.

But here’s where it might get interesting: The full text on feeding states “in the wild.”

Nelson contends the harbor seal he flicked the fishy bit to was inside a manmade harbor, an “artificial” structure and “not a natural body of water.”

Furthermore, the seals there are “completely habituated to human presence,” he also told Monson.

A HARBOR SEAL LURKS OFF AN ANGLER’S LINE OFF KINGSTON LAST JULY. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said agency policy is “to not comment on law enforcement cases” and emailed me links to an FAQ on why not to feed marine mammals and a link to what take means.

Neither publication define the word “wild,” nor does the MMPA specifically — at least in a layman’s quick reading — though it could also be construed as not in captivity.

NOAA’s FAQs do state that feeding seals “can cause them to lose their natural wariness of humans or boats and condition them to beg for handouts instead of foraging for their normal prey.”

That’s what appears to have happened with one of the “water puppies” hanging out at Nelson’s marina begging for scraps and got him in hot water with the government.

But instead of being scared, he plans to use the issue to highlight the problem of too many pinnipeds eating too many Chinook, which along with reduced hatchery and wild salmon production, vessel disturbance and pollution are decreasing orcas’ ability to thrive.

“Before they get a nickel out of me, they can go and lock me up,” Nelson told Monson.

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Steelie ‘Smolts’ Again Set To Try To Survive The Sound

For the third spring in a row, dozens of steelhead “smolts” will try to make their way from southern Puget Sound and Hood Canal rivers to the Pacific, an interactive game meant to highlight the plight of the little fish against predators, pollution and other perils.

This year’s online Survive the Sound challenge kicks off May 6 and playing is now free (previously the public entered with a donation), with teachers also supplied with a new toolkit of activities for their students.

PARTICIPANTS PICK CARICATURES OF STEELHEAD SMOLTS THAT CORRESPOND TO ACTUAL YOUNG FISH FROM THE NISQUALLY AND SKOKOMISH RIVERS THAT WERE IMPLANTED WITH RADIO TAGS FOR THE PREVIOUS YEAR’S MIGRATION. ACOUSTIC DEVICES IN PUGET SOUND RECORD THEIR PASSAGE AND THAT DATA IS USED FOR THE CURRENT YEAR’S SURVIVE THE SOUND. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The project’s website has also been simplified, with participants encouraged to join teams.

“The team with the most surviving fish at the end of the five-day migration wins!” says Lucas Hall of Long Live The Kings.

In the first two years, Northwest Sportsman‘s smolts have not had the best of luck, and Hall’s organization is working to understand the reasons behind declining marine survival in Puget Sound and other inside waters for not only real-world steelhead but also Chinook and coho.

Some of that work is pointing towards the Hood Canal Bridge as a very bad chokepoint for steelies.

LONG LIVE THE KINGS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR JACQUES WHITE POINTS TO A SLIDE SHOWING HOW TWO SMOLTS FARED AT THE HOOD CANAL BRIDGE — THE ONE ON THE RIGHT, FAIRLY WELL, THE OTHER LIKELY AS DINNER FARE FOR A HARBOR SEAL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

During a kickoff celebration to this year’s event held earlier in April at Anthony’s Pier 66, LLTK’s Jacques White shared a slide that showed how two different radio-tagged fish dealt with the structure, which lays across most of the canal and continues underwater at least 15 feet.

One fish was able to emerge from underneath the bridge, swim back to the top and continue on towards the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The other made a number of dives to depths that steelhead would otherwise avoid — probably in the stomach of the harbor seal or possibly a harbor porpoise after the young fish was eaten.

Those two fish are among the 500 or so implanted with radio tags in their home streams before their journey to the ocean. Acoustic devices in Puget Sound record their passage or lack thereof, and that data is used for the 48 representative smolts that make up the field of contestants in the challenge, as it were.

TOURISTS AND OTHERS ENJOY A VIEW OF PUGET SOUND ON A SUNNY SEATTLE SATURDAY, A TRANQUIL SCENE THAT BELIES THE MAJOR CHALLENGES FISH FACE IN THE INLAND SEA AND ITS TRIBUTARIES. THE SURVIVE THE SOUND GAME AIMS TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC ON THOSE AND HOPEFULLY HELP SUPPORT HABITAT AND OTHER ACTIONS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

With six days until the migration begins, 4,000 people have joined and nearly 740 different teams have formed so far (ours is Team Sealyalater, captained by Steely).

Deadline to join is May 5 but afterwards you can still follow the Journey Of The 48 on Survive the Sound’s map.

The experience is sponsored by a number of local tribes, Tacoma Power, Vulcan, and the Pike Place Market, among others.

A SIGN ADVERTISES A NEW BAR AND RESTAURANT COMING TO PIKE PLACE MARKET, BUT LITTLE FISH ARE ALSO SWIMMING PAST NOT FAR AWAY IN PUGET SOUND, OUTMIGRATING STEELHEAD, CHINOOK, COHO, CHUM AND SOCKEYE SMOLTS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Competition For Chinook By Seals, Sea Lions Limiting Salish Sea Orca Recovery, Study Says

Despite decreasing Chinook catches over recent decades, runs haven’t increased overall and more new research is pointing the finger at the bellies of growing West Coast marine mammal populations, a hunger that may be “masking” salmon recovery efforts.

A study out today says that between 1975 and 2015, sea lion, harbor seal and killer whale appetites for the nutrient-rich salmon more than doubled, growing from 6,100 metric tons annually to 15,200 metric tons, or 33,510,264 pounds.

HUGH ALLEN SNAPPED THIS HARBOR SEAL STEALING A SAN JUANS SALMON LITERALLY OFF AN ANGLER’S LINE. (HUGH ALLEN)

That’s the equivalent of 31.5 million kings, up from 5 million 40 years ago.

 

The study was published by researchers from Oregon State University, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and WDFW and tribal biologists, among others, in the journal Physical Reports under the headline “Competing tradeoffs between increasing marine mammal predation and fisheries harvest of Chinook salmon.”

The rub is that the fish and finned mammals are both protected by federal laws.

While killer whales account for the lion’s share of Chinook poundage consumed — especially those packs that haunt the waters from the west coast of Vancouver Island north to the Gulf of Alaska — the study suggests that the increasing numbers of pinnipeds are impacting the ability of Puget Sound’s orcas to recover more so than our fishing seasons targeting kings.

“Our results suggest that at least in recent years competition with other marine mammals is a more important factor limiting the growth of this endangered population than competition with human fisheries,” researchers state.

Pinnipeds are infamous for stealing Chinook off anglers’ lines, but much of what they eat are actually juvenile fish — harbor seals in particular.

Those in the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound and the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia, consume 86.4 percent of all those smolts eaten by marine mammals, “due to large increases in the harbor seal abundance in this region between 1975 and 2015 (8,600 to 77,800).”

“For Salish Sea Chinook salmon, strong increases in predation greatly exceed harvest; this is driven largely by local increases in pinniped abundance in the Salish Sea,” researchers write.

Overall, West Coast recreational and commercial catches have declined from 3.6 million to 2.1 million kings, while marine mammal consumption of adult salmon has risen from 1.3 million to 3.1 million.

Hatchery production peaked around 1985 at 350 million but has since declined to around 225 million a year. Overall hatchery and wild production is running between 400 million and 475 million in recent years, according to the study.

“… (L)ong term reductions in the salmon available for commercial and recreational fisheries may not reflect lower abundance of salmon, but rather a reallocation from human harvest to marine mammal consumption,” the authors write. “Because many populations of Chinook salmon in the Northeast Pacific are of conservation concern, substantial resources have been invested to improve salmon passage through hydropower dams, restore salmon habitat, reduce fishing, and otherwise improve conditions in rivers and streams to improve productivity. Collectively, these recovery efforts may have increased Chinook salmon survival or recovery, but these increases in salmon populations may be offset by salmon consumption by more-rapidly increasing populations of marine mammals and other predators.”

Columbia Basin fishery managers and others are pushing to increase lethal removals of sea lions, including most recently at Willamette Falls.

The new study, which looks at ocean impacts, found that for Chinook stocks from the Columbia south, “predation impacts have increased strongly over time and exceeded harvest in recent years.”