It is in these early months each year when a sense begins to emerge about the condition of forthcoming salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. Mysterious to the uninitiated, the North of Falcon season-setting process is of prime importance not only to fishermen but to all who care about the struggles of iconic regional species.
This year’s tentative seasons are a mixed bag. (The plan will be finalized at a meeting in Northern California in April.) Coho returns to the Columbia River system are the best news. Roughly a million are expected. Since coho form the backbone of popular recreational fisheries in the late summer and early fall, this relatively positive forecast bodes well for anglers and the many local businesses that depend on them.
Summer and fall returns of Chinook salmon — still the prestige species of the Pacific Northwest — aren’t predicted to be very good in comparison to the recent average. But the sport season will be about on par with last year, which produced some good fish and economic benefits. Chinook fishing in the second half of 2019 is expected to be significantly better than this spring, when the season was truncated.
The status of the Columbia’s fisheries — both in the river system and the nearby ocean — is crucial to the survival of estuary-based charter businesses. Their plight was recently detailed in news coverage that highlighted the few surviving operations still plying an industry that was many times larger a few decades ago. Although many factors are to blame, ample availability of salmon is the obviously fundamental attraction for charter customers. A quarter-century ago, it was possible to encounter celebrities like Mel Gibson breakfasting before predawn departures onto the water from local ports. Nowadays, the Columbia is seldom on the top of wish lists for “bucket list” fishing adventures.
Commercial salmon fishermen are on the cusp of a reprieve from extinction of their industry on the main stem of the Columbia. The appointed fisheries commissioners in both Washington and Oregon have acknowledged the failure — thus far anyway — of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s abrupt and unilateral decision to severely marginalize an already-struggling industry. Kitzhaber, to give him his due, believed it would be possible to keep commercial gillnetters economically whole by developing new off-channel fishing zones and harvest methods. This assumption proved inaccurate, and the states’ salmon managers appear likely to allow gillnetting in the Columbia this fall. Gillnetters will, at most, be permitted to harvest a minuscule percentage of returning salmon on behalf of consumers.
Despite fairly good predicted coho returns, there isn’t a straight line between more coho and great fishing. Some salmon runs continue to struggle, and will be intermingled with abundant returning hatchery coho. This mandates caution in scheduling and managing seasons. Columbia River treaty tribes are entitled to half of catchable salmon. New this year, endangered Washington state orcas must be considered. Columbia spring Chinook are especially vital to orca survival, a factor that was largely unrecognized until satellite tracking of orca hunting patterns a decade ago.
All salmon and steelhead — plus other locally important seagoing species including shad and smelt — are at the mercy of Pacific Ocean conditions, loss of freshwater habitat, hydropower operations and other factors. It’s great news that scientists see a return in the ocean to more normal temperatures, since these are key to the health of the marine food web, starting with nutrition-rich microorganisms. It is difficult, however, to maintain much optimism about the ocean’s longer-term health in the face of news that it is soaking up a large percentage of the carbon dioxide we’re injecting into the atmosphere.
For the sake of salmon — plus Native Americans, local economies, orcas and all the other creatures that rely on them — we have to do a better job managing the factors over which we can exert significant control. It is pie-in-the-sky to hope — as some continue to do — that natural salmon runs can replace hatcheries. It wasn’t possible to depend on naturally spawning fish nearly a century ago when Astoria-based Columbia River Packers/Bumble Bee led the way in advocating for hatcheries. It is far less possible to depend on natural spawning today. Adequate state and federal funding for hatcheries is essential.
Many strides have been made in the past 25 years in saving and restoring fresh and brackish water habitat. These efforts must continue — perhaps a tall order in a time of exploding federal budget deficits and proposed cutbacks in domestic spending. Even so, the states can and must continue funding restoration projects, while ensuring sensible land-use policies in riparian areas. Tribes, including the Cowlitz in our area, make important contributions to these efforts.
Of all that could and should be done to protect salmon and those who rely upon them, perhaps the most important is to work together. Although the 1990s and 2000s certainly were not glory days for salmon, at least that period was marked by robust cooperation between disparate fishing groups, government entities and even some conservationists. They all understood the benefits of presenting a united front on behalf of salmon fisheries — all for one, and one for all. There are some indications of a renewed understanding that there is strength in numbers, which brings an ability to exercise political muscle at all levels.
This year, with its old struggles and new complexities, is a perfect impetus to begin reaching out and forging stronger partnerships on behalf of fish most of us still regard as essential to our Pacific Northwest heritage.