SEATTLE -- The process for setting the salmon-fishing season begins next month, but news is already brewing about what anglers up and down the West Coast can expect this year.
While it is way too early to know exactly when anglers will be able to wet a line off the coast, the Oregon Production Index, which provides ocean-coho-abundance forecasts was released this past week.
The forecast calls for 556,000 coho to arrive off the Washington coast, compared to an actual return of more than 1.3 million (1.2 million was predicted) last year. Ilwaco, Pacific County, Westport in Grays Harbor County, La Push and Neah Bay in Clallam County experienced a banner coho fishing season last year.
"I'm not impressed by the forecast, but it isn't the end-of-the-world figures, and we've seen worse," said Doug Milward, a state Fish and Wildlife coastal-salmon manager. "I would expect coho fisheries like we saw in 2006 and 2007, which were OK seasons."
Milward did provide some good news to look forward to this summer off the coast.
"We are going to see a pretty good chinook year, and it could shape up to be a nice fishery, but how much of it we can access is still up in the air," Milward said.
The expected good chinook fishery off the coast is due to a strong forecast of Spring Creek tule fall chinook and Lower Columbia River tule hatchery chinook.
The news for salmon fisheries inside Puget Sound gets a little more complicated as the need to protect wild salmon, including those like chinook listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, is the highest priority.
"Definitely one of our most important objectives during the salmon season-setting process is to meet our conservation goals and concerns for Puget Sound chinook," said Pat Pattillo, a state Fish and Wildlife salmon policy coordinator. "We have made some really strong successful strides forward with marked selective fisheries (where anglers target healthy populations of hatchery fish).
"The theme for this year is to hang onto what we've got, and then to look at changes that might enhance the conservation picture."
Two areas where selective fishing hasn't been implemented are Elliott Bay and Hood Canal in the summer.
"Maybe this is the year to make that move (in those two areas)," Pattillo said.
One of the most frightening things Pattillo pointed out was the record-low number of wild chinook spawning in the Green River, where only 1,000 adult fish were seen last year. The Green River is managed to put 6,000 fish on the spawning grounds.
"We got our hatchery fish back to Soos Creek, but the puzzling thing is we don't know why we had such a low number on the spawning ground," Pattillo said. "We're going to be more cautious. It might turn out we promote changing the Elliott Bay chinook fishery to a selective fishery to provide more protection to wild chinook."
There could be changes made in the Skokomish River where anglers could be allowed to keep only hatchery-marked chinook (those with a missing adipose fin), and possibly in the marine waters off Hood Canal to reduce wild chinook catches.
While last year's figures for the summer Skagit River chinook returns haven't been finalized, it appears that a fishery isn't going to happen again this summer.
"I think there is some positive news for (Puget Sound) coho stocks, and a few that could be higher this year including some in North Sound," Pattillo said.
The first meeting to discuss Strait of Juan de Fuca sport fisheries is 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Trinity Methodist Church, 100 S. Blake Ave. in Sequim.
State Fish and Wildlife will unveil their preseason forecasts 9 a.m. March 2 at a public meeting in the General Administration Building Auditorium, 11th Avenue and Columbia Street in Olympia.
Final seasons will be set April 10-15 at a meeting in Portland. For a list of meeting dates, go to wdfw.wa.gov/fish/northfalcon.
Sacramento chinook returns are dismal
For the third consecutive year, the Sacramento River fall chinook returns have fallen into an abyss.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) released its 2009 review of West Coast ocean-salmon fisheries late this past week and found that only 39,530 hatchery and wild fall chinook were estimated to have returned to the Sacramento River basin for spawning.
The 2009 adult escapement estimate is the lowest on record and continues to decline despite the 2008 and 2009 closures of nearly all ocean chinook fisheries south of Cape Falcon on the northern Oregon boundary line and Central Valley chinook fisheries. The conservation goal in the Sacramento river is 122,000 to 180,000 hatchery and wild chinook.
It is hard to imagine that just a decade ago this return to the Sacramento River was over 500,000.
In 2001, the wild fall chinook return was 537,415 and the hatchery return was 59,360, and in 2002 that number shot up to 682,695 and 87,173 respectively. Since then totals have plummeted to 523,016 in 2003; 286,885 in 2004; 396,005 in 2005; 269,190 in 2006; 87,940 in 2007; and 64,456 in 2008.
The PFMC's first meeting to discuss ocean fisheries is March 6-12 in Sacramento.