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Baker, Skokomish Sockeye Issues Raised With Washington Fish Commission

Sockeye issues are boiling to a head in Western Washington.

Sportfishing representatives went to the Fish and Wildlife Commission in late October to ask for a more equitable share of one river’s salmon.

And they expressed opposition to the use of eggs from those fish so a tribe elsewhere can try and jumpstart a run but in the meanwhile are blocking recreational fishermen from accessing state hatchery-raised Chinook and coho.

A SIGN POSTED ALONG THE SKOKOMISH RIVER BY THE SKOKOMISH TRIBE WARNS ANGLERS AWAY FROM THE BANKS AS 2016’S RETURN OF CHINOOK TO THE STATE HATCHERY FILLED THE RIVER. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

“This egg transfer program needs to be put on hold until the sportfishing harvest inequities for the Baker Lake sockeye run is addressed and the sport salmon fishery is reestablished on the Skokomish River,” Al Senyohl of the Steelhead Trout Club of Washington told the commission in late October. “What’s missing here in the whole equation is opportunity — opportunity for us to get our fair share on the Skagit River and opportunity for us to fish on the Skokomish River.”

Ultimately, Senyohl and others are trying to use whatever leverage they can to get more state focus on reopening the Skokomish, which was closed in 2016 and this year, and where some 35,000-plus surplus Chinook have returned to WDFW’s George Adams Hatchery this fall.

Fishing advocate Frank Urabeck reports that with the Skokomish Tribe having harvested 55,000 Chinook this year, he figures that if the river had been open, anglers might have caught as many as 15,000.

The Baker sockeye eggs come from several hundred fish captured at Puget Sound Energy’s Baker River trap and are part of a broader, longterm enrichment of salmon runs in southern Hood Canal as Tacoma Power updates their dams there.

But anglers are leery that they will ever be able to access those fish following on the Skokomish’s use of a federal solicitor’s opinion to take over the entire width of the river.

“Why are we rewarding a neighbor who is behaving badly? Why?” asked Norm Reinhart of the Kitsap Poggie Club. “I understand that the (sockeye) may not belong to WDFW, but we most certainly are supporting that transfer with our science and our staff. Why are we doing that?”

(For the state’s position, go here.)

It has angler advocates looking around for options.

“We’re going to have to play hardball again,” Ron Garner, state president of Puget Sound Anglers, told the commission.

Back up on the Skagit River, as sockeye runs have increased to the Baker in recent years, North Sound tribes and recreational anglers have benefited, but in two of the past four summers, there’s been a sharp harvest inequity in favor of the former fishermen.

That’s due to returns that have come in lower than preseason forecasts. While tribes fish to that forecast, it can mean far fewer sockeye are hauled up to Baker Lake, a prime sportfishing opportunity.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff outlined several possible ways to address that for the commission.

One idea is to use a Columbia River spring Chinook-like 30 percent run buffer before an inseason run update, but the agency appears hesitant to do that because of perceived tribal pushback because of potentially not being able to harvest their share.

Staffers appear to prefer improving run modeling and increasing the sport fishing area on the Skagit River to better balance the harvest.

But Urabeck wanted the commission to get involved.

“Given the complexity, seriousness of the situation, and inability so far for the Department to adequately address the harvest imbalance issues, we ask that the commission have your Fish Committee work with us and the department to achieve the cooperation of the affected Skagit Basin tribes to secure harvest fairness and equity,” Urabeck asked commissioners. “It might be appropriate to have the Fish Committee also take a look at the implementation plan for the transfer of Baker sockeye eyed eggs to the Skokomish Tribe’s Salt-water Park Sockeye Hatchery. We ask that you also could encourage (WDFW) Director (Jim) Unsworth and Governor (Jay) Inslee to renew their efforts with the Skokomish Tribe to allow Skokomish River sport salmon fishing to resume in 2018.”

Members of the Fish Committee include Vice Chair Larry Carpenter, Bob Kehoe, Dave Graybill and Kim Thorburn.

At least two expressed interest in taking some of the issues up. Carpenter noted that without other fishing opportunities on the Skagit in recent years, sockeye’s all that anybody — tribal and recreational alike — have really had.

Next Thursday, November 16, Tacoma Power is hosting a public meeting on Skokomish River salmon restoration. It will be held at the Cushman Fire Hall (240 North Standstill Drive) and begins at 6 p.m