The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched two months of public meetings as regulators decide how much salmon can be harvested from state waters. The process includes the first official statewide forecasts detailing how many salmon are expected to return in 2019.
It’s not a great year for salmon returns. Once again, Chinook runs in Puget Sound and on the Columbia River are expected to be well below their 10-year average. The forecasts detail outlooks for Columbia, Puget Sound and coastal salmon runs.
Sport and commercial fishermen, charter boat captains and others who depend on the fisheries are invited to attend.
This year, Fish and Wildlife is directing fisheries managers to consider the dietary needs of Southern Resident orca whales when they set the harvest numbers, says Kyle Adicks, a salmon policy lead with the agency. Orcas feed primarily on Chinook salmon, which were listed as endangered in 1999.
"We've actually decreased by over 25 percent in that time and that's in spite of much heavier restrictions on fisheries,” Adicks said. “There's been a lot of work done on habitat to try to boost the populations. But they've still declined since the time of listing, so there's obviously still a lot of work to do to rebuild those populations and get the salmon recovery."
In the Columbia River system, spring Chinook are down 14 percent from last year and at 50 percent below the 10-year average. Adicks says it's not clear whether closing state fisheries would show any measurable benefits for orcas. But regulators are trying to take the whales into consideration and make sure the public is aware of the process.
Pink salmon also are expected to have another down year.
There is a bright spot, though. Adicks says coho salmon are rebounding after several years of struggle, starting with the blob of warm water in the Pacific set up in 2015.
"Ocean conditions look better, coho around the state are predicted to come back in much greater numbers than the recent past, especially that sort-of disaster of 2015,” he said. “So we don't think that will be quite the limiting factor in planning all our fisheries as it has been for the past several years."
Adicks says officials will engage the public over the next month and a half, as they figure out how to set salmon seasons that take advantage of the rebounding coho and respect requirements on endangered Chinook — especially now that they have an official directive to consider the dietary needs of endangered Southern Resident killer whales.