Expected returns of fall salmon should be very similar to last year’s actual returns, and although most stocks are doing well and improving, the lower Columbia River tule Chinook will once again under perform, and likely restrain fisheries at Buoy 10.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife unveiled those forecasts on Tuesday for fall salmon returns to Puget Sound, the Washington coast, and the Columbia River.
The forecasts are a result of the state and tribal leaders working together to analyze data and produce the projections, ahead of the North of Falcon process (NOF). That process will eventually produce fisheries seasons and set the regulations for Puget Sound, ocean fisheries, and terminal fisheries in the Columbia River and its tributaries.
Most Chinook returns are expected to be slightly better than last year’s actual returns. Coho returns are also expected to be up as well.
About 272,400 upriver brights are expected to return to the mouth of the Columbia this year, an increase over the 254,880 adult return of 2022.
The return of lower river Chinook hatchery stocks, which are referred to as “tules” is expected to be similar to the three-year average.
Listed as endangered, the wild component of this run almost always constrains Chinook fisheries in the lower river. At only 77,000 adults, this year’s projection is lower than last year’s actual return, and could mean difficulties for fisheries managers.
Bonneville Pool hatchery tules are expected to do well, and about 136,000 should return above Bonneville. This is about 150 percent of the 10-year average, but it is below last year’s record return of 258,300 adults.
Coho projections are excellent, with about 886,000 adults expected prior to ocean fisheries. This return would best last year’s run of 685,000. That is also nearly double the 10-year average.
Ryan Lothrop, the Columbia River fisheries manager for the WDFW, reports the runs are right about where they were last year.
“You could literally say the runs are very similar to the last three seasons,” Lothrop said. “Our constraints are the same as last year. The allowable catch rates are exactly the same as last year.”
And, once again, the department is facing some vexing decisions. They revolve around the lower river tules, which always seem to constrain lower river fall fisheries.
How do you protect these fish while allowing harvest on the other robust runs?
“Trying to handle that is quite a challenge,” Lothrop said.
However, the state has a new tool in hand — the WDFW created an online angler survey this past year and will soon issue a summary of the results.
Lothrop said the agency will be using the information from that survey as it begins the process of setting seasons for the year.
“Those results will be used to help guide the decisions concerning the Columbia River seasons,” added Lothrop. “The results of the survey will help inform us.”
Lothrop said the state is eager to avoid any repeat of the early closures in the lower Columbia, which was the case last year, and it rankled anglers and guides.
With the projections in hand, the attention will now turn to the NOF process.
This is the complicated process where state fisheries managers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tribal entities, commercial and recreational anglers, including the charter fleet, and other fishing groups get together and hash out what portion of the harvest will be available to which stakeholders.
Many Columbia River guides, sport fishing clubs, and recreational anglers complain that the process has been broken for some time.
Fishing Guide Bob Rees of the Oregon Fishing Guide Service, said the same issues that have dogged local anglers for years are still out there. He claims last year’s NOF was not good.
“It was a disaster,” said Rees. “It’s definitely the old guard guarding the henhouse kind of situation. It hasn’t worked very well for fishermen in the lower Columbia, that’s for sure.”
Rees pointed to the fact that the Washington coast charter fleet seems to always protect their right to fish without a mark-selective mandate for Chinook during the ocean season, where tule Chinook are a heavy part of the harvest. Canadian fishers are also allowed to keep wild and hatchery tules, which constitute a big share of their ocean harvest.
The only anglers that seem to be affected by constraints on the wild unmarked tules are lower Columbia River anglers.
“Under the U.S.-Canada treaty agreement they get vastly more impacts on tules in the ocean fisheries than we have in the lower river,” Rees said. “It seems like if we got a little more impacts in the lower Columbia, we would have a more robust fishery today.”
Impacts refer to overall mortality rates of wild tules during the fishing seasons.
The NOF process involves several meetings, including the only meeting to discuss fisheries in the Columbia River, which will be held at the WDFW Region 5 headquarters in Ridgefield on March 14 beginning at 10 a.m.
There will be several other meetings during the process, which will result in the setting of seasons for Puget Sound, the Washington coast, and the terminal river fisheries.
The NOF process will develop proposed seasons during April and May, and the public comment period will be from May through June, when the final regulations will be adopted.
The public can comment on the proposed seasons, either in person at some of the meetings, or via a comment portal on the WDFW website at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/management/north-falcon/public-input#recreational
The North of Falcon Meeting schedule is also available on the WDFW website at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/management/north-falcon/public-meetings