To protect fragile runs of coho, regional fishery managers are considering a rare total closure of Oregon and Washington ocean salmon fisheries north of Cape Falcon, near Manzanita, Oregon.
State, tribal and federal fishery managers have three options for non-treaty ocean salmon fisheries north of Cape Falcon. Two options would permit some salmon fishing this year, but one would close both recreational and commercial ocean fisheries for chinook and coho salmon.
Managers are not considering a total closure option for salmon fisheries south of Cape Falcon.
Butch Smith, owner of Coho Charters in Ilwaco, Washington, said a no-fishing option would be devastating to coastal communities on the Washington and northern Oregon coasts.
"Fishing is our lifeblood," he said. "Fishing is our Boeing and our Microsoft."
He said his recreational fishing charter depends on ocean salmon fishing for about 85 percent of its business, and a lot of other coastal businesses depend on salmon fisheries in one way or another.
Smith, who sits on an advisory panel that helps managers set salmon seasons coast-wide, said the last total fishing closure he can recall off Washington was in 1994; in 2008, ocean salmon fishing was severely restricted and resulted in a disaster declaration. That allowed fishing-dependent businesses to apply for disaster relief funds. He's hoping that won't be the outcome of this year's season.
"We are hard working people, and we want to try within the conservation concerns to get a season," he said. "This is just the beginning of the process. That's one thing we want to keep in mind. We're nowhere close to the end."
The Pacific Fishery Management Council sets ocean fishing seasons off the Pacific coast. The chinook and coho quotas approved by the council will be part of a salmon fishing package that includes marine and freshwater fisheries throughout Puget Sound, the Columbia River and Washington's coastal areas. State and tribal co-managers are considering options for those fisheries, which will be finalized at the council's April meeting in Vancouver, Washington.
Washington Fish and Wildlife Department spokesman Kyle Adicks said coho salmon returns to the Columbia River are the main driver of ocean fisheries off the Washington coast, and the predictions for returns this year are about half of last year's forecast.
The state also has "really weak forecasts" for coastal coho and Puget Sound stocks, he said, and managers want to make sure they're protected from ocean salmon fisheries.
Adicks said warm water in the ocean had a negative effect on last year's salmon runs, "and those conditions persisted, so we're expecting to see a similar weak return this year."
However, managers are expecting a strong return of Columbia River fall chinook salmon is expected back this year, including lower river hatchery fish, which have been the backbone of the recreational ocean chinook fishery.
In a news release, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Unsworth said he hopes fishery managers can provide some ocean salmon fishing opportunities this year, but they need to protect the diminished number of wild coho expected to return this year.
“Fishery managers face many difficult decisions in the weeks ahead as we move toward solidifying salmon-fishing seasons for the state,” Unsworth said. “We know that severely limiting opportunities will hurt many families and communities that depend on these fisheries. But conserving wild salmon is our top priority and is in the best interest of future generations of Washingtonians.”
The non-treaty recreational fishing alternatives include the following quotas for fisheries on the northern Oregon coast and all of the Washington coast:
A public hearing on the three alternatives for ocean salmon fisheries is scheduled for March 28 in Westport, Washington. More information and a schedule of public meetings are available here.