Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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Study finds Chinook salmon are returning to rivers younger than before, resparking debate on fish management

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An environmental group has released a new paper calling for non-tribal trolling fisheries to be shut down and other fisheries reduced to help Chinook salmon recover from nearly 50 years of decline.

The Coastal Conservation Association’s study pointed to an ongoing reduction in the average age of Chinook salmon found returning to rivers to spawn.

Local commercial fishermen countered the recovery problem is not with the harvest, but with salmon habitat loss, and solutions are not as simple as only catching hatchery salmon or shutting down fisheries.

Co-author of the paper Jack Tipping, Coastal Conservation Association member and retired Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist, said the average age of Chinook salmon returning to rivers to spawn has declined since the 1970s, which could mean less reproductively fit fish and certainly means smaller fish.

“The way we look at it, if we continue down this same path there won’t be too many more years before a five-pound fish is a big one,” Tipping said. Chinook salmon typically average between 5 and 30 pounds.

The study by Tipping and Ed Wickersham used a statewide Coded Wire Tag database and found that the average Chinook salmon age-at-return declined from 4.13 years in the 1970s to 3.75 years today. That 4.6 months difference means fish are smaller by several pounds and potentially less fertile, Tipping said.

Coded wire tags are small pieces of wire injected in the snout of juvenile hatchery salmon. Salmon are scanned for the presence of a tag when caught.

“Ed and I are both members of the Coastal Conversation Association and we’d just like to see the sport fishing and the wild fish be robust and plentiful like they once were,” Tipping said.

Commercial vs. recreational

Tipping said he believes the decline in age is due to high commercial catch rates of immature fish in the ocean. While anglers are limited to keeping only hatchery salmon and must release any wild salmon they catch, commercial ocean trolling boats do not have to differentiate between wild and hatchery salmon.

Kent Morton, a local commercial fisherman and fishery consultant, said there was no way for commercial boats to easily differentiate between wild and hatchery salmon and “recreational hooks are not any more selective than any other kind of hook.”

While anglers do have to release wild fish they hook, Morton said releasing a fish can lead to injury or mortality no matter who releases it.

Robert Sudar, a retired local commercial fisherman and fishery consultant, said selective fishing can be complex and while it may work in some cases, it’s not a catch-all solution.

Selective fishing works well in fisheries that have more hatchery than wild fish. In truly mixed fisheries like the ocean, Sudar said sorting fish can cause more fish mortality.

“The more fish you’re sifting through to find the hatchery fish, the more unmarked fish you’re killing,” he said. “And as you recover wild fish populations, which is our goal, you’re changing that ratio so it leads to even more of that kind of sorting.”

Morton also believes the problem is much larger than the fisheries.

“As long as you’re talking harvest, especially commercial harvest, society is not really looking at the lifestyles that have caused a lot of the problems,” Morton said. “Puget Sound stocks and Columbia stocks are not recovering, and a lot of it is habitat.”

Pollution and dams blocking spawning grounds are larger problems that need to be solved for the fish to recover, Morton said.

“The easy thing to do is pick on harvest, particularly commercial harvest. But if you don’t deal with the other issues it won’t change anything,” Morton said. “I praise the tribes. They dragged the irrigation and hydro folks kicking and screaming into court and said you have to give the fish an allocation of the water.”

CCA recommendations

Tipping laid out four recommendations in the study: Reduce the allowable harvest, restrict ocean fisheries to only hatchery fish, restrict harvest fisheries to rivers or river mouths to reduce the amount of immature fish that are caught and close all non-tribal troll fisheries and redistribute the harvest.

“Its going to take public and political pressure to get the fish management agencies to change because they’re pressured by commercial interests and a lot of time they have better lobbyists than the public does,” he said.

Tipping said the current harvest rate of 38% tule, or wild, stock exploitation is unsustainable and makes it so there is not a reasonable chance for fish stock recovery.

“Status quo fish management will result in continuously smaller, less fecund Chinook salmon and ultimately collapsed fisheries,” the paper states.

There also have been harvest closures on hatchery fish for the last two years in the Cowlitz River and escape rates of wild fish on the Cowlitz River has been insufficient to allow sport harvest on fall Chinook for the last seven years, according to the paper.

“The public has spent billions and billions of dollars protecting wild Chinook salmon and yet the commercial industries in the ocean sell those fish for $85 each,” Tipping said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Tipping said it’s vital to reduce immature and wild catch because it will cause a particular problem for female fish. Female fish take longer to mature and return to rivers to spawn than males do, putting them more at risk of being caught early.

“Males tend to mature a year or two earlier than the females so the females are going to be exposed to ocean harvest for one or two more years than the males will,” Tipping said. “So they are going to be selectively removed more so than the males.”

By reducing the harvest rate, Tipping said there would be more chances for anglers to get fish, wild fish populations could bounce back and the age shift would be slowed down, which would improve fish health.

“I always thought that the Chinook salmon was one of the, if not the, premier fish of Washington state,” he said. “They’re such beautiful, big fish. I have a lot of respect for them and I really like to catch them.”

Morton said until sport, conservation and commercial groups work together, nothing will be accomplished for the fish, because “we’re all involved in this.”

Sudar said overall, “people try to simplify salmon management and it’s not simple. You can’t make it simple.”

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