TFloor On Sekiu Blackmouth, Fixing Broken Ocean Salmon Allocation

By Tony Floor
Fishing Affairs Director
Northwest Marine Trade Association

Ahhh, February… Valentine’s Day… chocolate, flowers and chinook. That’s right baby, it’s blackmouth time in the Strait, Admiralty Inlet and all points north. Remember, chinook love chocolate, in the shape of a herring and a few Valentine’s Day flowers work perfect around a seafood platter with a piece of fresh grilled winter blackmouth shared with friends. Yeah, bring on Valentine’s Day!

For decades, fishing the saltwater salmon scene in February has filled my mind with great memories of trips to the Strait, particularly in the western Strait, up at Sekiu when these waters traditionally open on February 16. My mentor, Frank Haw, introduced me to Sekiu in February, when he would circle up some of the boys for a trip to Sekiu, nestled into the west end of Clallam Bay. Northwest Indian folklore suggests Clallam Bay means “calm water.” Okay fine, as long as the prevailing winds, on any given day, are out of the south. Back in the 70’s and 80’s on those February fishing trips, mooching for chinook, working the bottom 20 feet of water in a 100 to 140 feet of water with a plug cut herring was the ticket. I learned a lot. Today, downriggers rule, trolling a plug cut herring, or hardware, five feet off the bottom covering ground, watching for the slightest twitch of the rod tip, indicating customer!

As coded-wire tag data suggests, covering nearly 50 years of catch and migratory information, the blackmouth will be around, regardless of time of day during February in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Working the tide/current changes, watching for bait and waiting for Walter the Monster to eat my worm is my strategy. These fish, many of whom were released from Puget Sound salmon hatcheries, are in their third, fourth or fifth year of life, putting on the pounds in preparation for the great migration home to the river of their destination later this year.

Sekiu is not the only game in town. To the east, Freshwater Bay and the humps (1st, 2nd and 3rd) northwest of Port Angeles can be lights out blackmouth fishing. Further east in the Strait, Coyote Bank, Hein Bank and Middle Bank are great historical producers of February blackmouth. I practically lived on these Banks during February and March from the mid-80’s through the 90’s. Look for a little cooperation from the weather, with winds forecasted at 15 knots or less, light or moderate tidal flow and it’s a slam dunk.

Thinking about the early 80’s, I want to turn back the pages of time to that era, and visit an issue regarding ocean chinook salmon that has been simmering near my frontal lobe for a number of years. If you were around during that period of time, the federal government got into the salmon game with the establishment of the 200-mile jurisdictional limit, which opened the door as to how the annual salmon catch was shared between sport and commercial fishers. Remember, coastal states have jurisdiction from zero to three miles, then, for the next 197 miles to the west, in Washington’s case, the feds are in charge. After a few years of negotiating, bickering and fighting between sport, commercial fishers, state and federal interests, the federal government, through its new governing body called the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC), composed of 13 west coast representatives from government and sport/commercial industries decided that the allocation of harvestable numbers of chinook salmon be split, 50/50.

The evolution of the sport and commercial ocean salmon fishing fleets has changed significantly during the last 30 years. That’s a shock. Think about this… the 1985-86 data suggests there were 1,255 non-Indian trollers targeting on their allocation of half of the non-Indian chinook salmon share. On the sport fishing side of the equation, there were 298 licensed charter boats fishing during those same years, which does not include private boat anglers like me.

Now, hit the 30-year fast forward button. During the period of 2006-2010, there are 92 licensed non-Indian trollers, of which about half, actively pursue ocean chinook salmon during the summer season. On the sport side, there are 142 licensed charter boats fishing coastal waters each summer, and, in terms of total anglers (charter boat anglers and private boat anglers), half of the number today are privately owned sport fishing boats.

In summary, there are far less than 10% of the commercial troll fishing boats, who were granted half of the non-Indian chinook salmon allocation 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the charter salmon fishing fleet has been reduced by half, yet, with the high interest of sport fishing in the ocean by sport fishing boats, the number of anglers who fish, or want to fish in the ocean remains very high. In other words, after 30 years of an ocean chinook salmon allocation plan, put into place by the PFMC, the troll fleet continues to be guaranteed half of the non-Indian share. That’s ridiculous and out of date.

I believe in wise economic use of Washington’s natural resources. I also believe that the natural resource world is swept into the climate of continuous change, and it’s time to re-evaluate this 30-year old allocation formula. After all, any economic study done in the last 20 years, attempting to evaluate the economic value between sport and commercial salmon fisheries suggest an overwhelming higher value for the sport fishing industry and related industries. Am I suggesting nuking the non-Indian troll fleet, as small as it has become? Nope. One direction of solution for our troller friends, is to look to the north and observe how British Columbia has addressed a similar evolution in their sport and commercial salmon fisheries. First, they have embraced recreational salmon fishing as a priority policy, relative to the wise economic use of harvestable chinook and coho salmon. Most interpret this Canadian policy to mean that the chinook and coho are managed first, for the sport fishery and the troll fishery takes only what remains of the annual quota. This approach to salmon management provides for sport fishers and the infrastructure of the comprehensive sport fishing industry which depend on stable salmon seasons without in-season closures we experience so often in Washington. This approach provides a dependable base.

Second, Canada has made changes to the management of their troll fishery that ensures the economic viability of that segment of the industry, for example, by embracing Individual Fishery Quotas (IFQ’s) that promotes investments by active troll fishermen and minimizes the cost to the government managing the fishery. The Canadian government is also looking at reducing the overall size of the troll fleet by buying back inactive licenses.

I realize, to many of the readers of this column, this issue may be confusing or trigger the interpretation of “who cares.” My response is that I care and I further firmly believe in the management and wise economic use decision making of our salmon fishing opportunities.

This issue needs a champion to bring ocean chinook salmon allocation into the 21st century. Possibly the Fish and Wildlife Commission, who sets policy for the Washington Department of Fisheries is a good starting point. By directing the agency to evaluate the ocean chinook salmon allocation formula and elevate the outcome of this evaluation to the PFMC makes complete sense to me. The Commission, nor WDFW can change the allocation. Again, the PFMC and its 13 voting members must make the change. However, WDFW, through its Director, Phil Anderson, is in a position to affect that discussion. Considering that the PFMC’s allocation policy has been in place for nearly 30 years, it is clearly past due for reconsideration, but it’s a change that won’t happen without broad support and that will require time and patience. Do not expect a change in 2012, but it’s time to get the issue rolling.

While you’re digesting the words of this month’s column, if you have not been down to the Seattle Boat Show, better giddy-up as the 2012 version of the west coast’s biggest boat show will be history by the end of the Super Bowl game. I look forward to the end of the Super Bowl as the next kickoff is blackmouth fishing for this cat in February. That gives me a couple of weeks to gather up some fat, oily winter blackmouth destined for the grill and that Valentine’s Day dinner!

See you on the water.

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