Tough times call for hard decisions, and we are facing some of the most difficult times we’ve ever seen when it comes to this year’s expected coho returns to western Washington.
After last year’s disastrous coho run, the tribal and state co-managers are taking the drastic step of considering a zero option for salmon fishing off the Washington coast and in Puget Sound.
Coho returns in most areas last year were less than half of what was expected. Those that returned displayed the effects of poor ocean conditions: warmer-than-normal water and less nutritious food for salmon. Most were 20 to 30 percent smaller than normal. Females returned with about 40 percent fewer eggs. That will result in a huge drop in both natural and hatchery production in the years to come.
The tribal and state co-managers need a full range of options — including no fishing at all — as we work to craft limited fisheries to meet basic needs over the next month. We hope it doesn’t come to that. Our cultures, treaty rights and economies depend on salmon. But the resource must come first.
We don’t know how many coho will be coming back, how healthy they will be or how many eggs the females will have. We have never seen runs this low, so we don’t know how well they might bounce back. That’s why zero must be the starting place for fisheries management planning this year.
Both hatchery and naturally spawning coho are in the same boat this year because both are equally affected by poor ocean conditions. In many instances, returns will likely be far below minimum levels needed to produce the next generation of salmon.
The Nisqually Tribe’s Kalama Creek Hatchery and the state’s Wallace River and Minter Creek hatcheries likely won’t even come close to reaching egg-take goals. It will be a nail-biter for many other hatcheries.
We must reduce impacts on returning hatchery fish to maximize returns to some facilities so we can meet egg shortfalls at others. Tribes are evaluating possible impacts from cherished ceremonial and subsistence fisheries that are a cornerstone of our cultures. That’s because every impact matters, whether from mark selective sport fisheries targeting hatchery salmon in marine waters to in-river trout fisheries that impact both hatchery and naturally spawning coho.
With plenty of good habitat, salmon populations are naturally resilient and able to withstand the impacts of poor ocean conditions. But today we are losing salmon habitat faster than it can be restored and the trend shows no signs of change. As a result, low returns are getting lower and returns for healthy populations are declining, too. The overall trend points in only one direction: downward.
We are in a situation where every year each returning salmon is becoming more and more important. The room for error continues to shrink. Even small mistakes can have huge consequences in times like these. That’s why conservation must be the first rule of fisheries management.
We don’t know what the future holds for the salmon and us, but we do know that we cannot sacrifice tomorrow’s salmon for today’s harvest. Those fish belong to the generations that will follow us.
Lorraine Loomis is the chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries