February 1997 – Issues & Opinion
A Potential Third Factor is that the new Wildlife Commission, which has never dealt with the salmon fishery or any commercial fisheries, has decided on instituting a mass marking of Coho smolts to further their as yet unannounced Wild Salmon Policy. The idea is that by clipping all Coho juveniles released from WA, any one catching an adult Coho without a clipped fin would immediately know that it was a wild fish and release it. Thus protecting the wild salmon runs. That’s the theory. Several problems with this however.
First and foremost both the Tribes and Canada told them to take a hike with that idea. It’s plain bad science. Reason: the entire database used to track salmon from river to return on the West Coast is based on clipping the same fin. There would be no way to tell which salmon is going where or how many of them exist, since all the data collected over many decades and at great expense would become invalid overnight.
Second: The Wild Salmon Policy mandates the elimination of all the hatcheries. Question: Where do you then raise these new-breed Coho? No answer as yet.
Third: There has not been a wild salmon in WA since the last of the Tahuya River (at the bottom of Hood Canal) Coho run was trapped and killed off by Fisheries in ’78 – ’81. There are many natural spawning Coho, but these are all genetic mixes strayed from Hatcheries and nearby rivers.
Forth: Back before Milo More began the Hatchery program in the 50’s, these salmon were relatively scarce. Question: If you eliminate the hatcheries, does that mean the number of coho would decline even further to the pre-hatchery days? No answer again.
The best answer to this thorny problem is the most politically unacceptable. End delayed release of coho, end the year round sport fishery, and issue tags to sports fishermen, similar to today’s deer tags.
As it now exists sport fishermen are on the ‘honor system’ to buy a punch card and to punch the card when a salmon is caught and then to send the card into Fisheries when fully punched. He can then buy another punch card. How many salmon can a person eat in one year? Times an unlimited number of harvesters. That’s a lot of fish, even assuming everyone is honest.
The last statistic I heard on the subject of illegal sale of sport caught fish was from the then Director of Fisheries, Joe Blum. He stated that it was there ‘guestimate’ that at least 10% of all salmon sports fishermen sell their catch. That year the number was 70,000 people selling their unrecorded catches illegally. The number is probably down to around only 40,000 or so today.
It’s time for the politicians and the managers to bit the bullet. Non-Indian Commercial fishermen in Puget Sound already have. We have had either very limited or no directed Coho fishery for several years. The only coho fishery remaining is in Bellingham Bay on hatchery stocks. All other Puget Sound harvested Coho are either in the Tribal commercial fisheries on in the Sport fishery.
Our impact is currently close to Zero on Puget Sound Coho stocks. Any Coho caught incidentally are counted and recorded at the time of landing. Not so with the Sport catch.
It’s time to shut the inside Puget Sound sport fishery down for a while to let these favorite sport fish stocks recover. What’s ‘good’ for us is good for them.
It’s also time for Tags for the Sports fishery. There must be total accountability as there is in the Non-Indian Commercial fishery. Their fish must be recorded, counted and tracked from boat/riverbank to kitchen as our are. No more stuffing freezers full. No more selling. No more taking last year’s unused coho to the landfill. Only a set number of Tags can be issued to each sport salmon fishermen – when they are used up, he’s done for the year. The only way managers are going to be able to manage this burgeoning fishery, is by knowing exactly how many fish are harvested and where. No more ‘guestimates’ based on 1% of returned punch cards.
Any violations must have stiff penalties – I suggest like penalties for sport and commercial – currently we are charged with a Class C Felony, fines in the $10K range, possible jail time and confiscation of gear & boat as well as placing our permits renewal in dire jeopardy. What’s good for us is good for them.
Of course, one day down the road there will have to be some sort of lottery system or auction for the sport harvest of these fish, as there is in many states with big game animals. Better to start now, then wait until there is no alternative, short of no fishing.
An other aspect of this equation is the Delayed Release Program. What this does is provide a year round Sport Fishery inside Puget Sound. While this is good for sport/recreational business and provides a steady income for some Sport fishermen selling their catches illegally, it is bad science and a disaster for all salmon stocks either from hatchery or from rivers.
Delayed release Coho and Chinook start life as any other salmon, but instead of being released to migrate with other normal timed stocks, these are held over for several months before release. Since these fish must be fed longer, they cost more money per fish to raise. At release these fish are generally larger and stronger than their hatchery and river cousins. And the money for the extra feed comes at the expense of all other salmon stocks, thus decreasing either the number of other stocks raised or the quality of the young salmon at release.
When released, these fish become confused about what exactly they are supposed to do. So not knowing they are supposed to migrate out to sea for several years before returning, hang around home. Home in this case is generally speaking the entire Puget Sound – Strait of Juan de Fuca area. And of course while waiting for some Sport Fisherman, they have to eat. And since this salmon species are carnivorous, they eat what they find – more often then not, out-migrating salmon smolts from the hatcheries and rivers of Puget Sound, and herring.
Again it is interesting to note the rise of the Delayed Release Program seems to dovetail nicely with the corresponding decrease in ‘wild’ salmon and herring stocks.
Of course, the natural out-migrating salmon used to feed on the herring stocks, but since the new bigger competitors eat first, they eat last and least. And so it is when these out-migrating juveniles reach the Pacific Ocean, where competition is really fierce, they are fewer, smaller and weaker then before delayed release.
And when they return, it is only natural to see them fewer, smaller and weaker. Currently these stocks are returning an average of 3.5 to 5 lbs, down from the 9 lb average in the 70’s. An interesting note occurred about 5 years ago when the Coho returned at their old averages. All the Managers where dumbfounded by this disaster – in their book. Heads rolled at Fisheries.
To make a long story shorter – a policy that eliminates the hatchery system, mass marks salmon juveniles, and keeps a Delayed Release Program, is a recipe for: ‘two fish in every creek; their sex does not matter’. With that kind of success, I’m sure some manager will attempt to declare the Wild Salmon Policy a flat-out success.
Which all in all is a good argument to keep politics out of natural resources, especially in the salmon fisheries. The only real benefits accrue to Fisheries Managers and politicians justifying their jobs by declaring some new policy to fix the old, failed one: ‘just give us one more chance – our jobs and retirement are at stake here. Our new plan is…’
There is an existing plan that would restore these runs. In fact, it is a state law, but due to heavy sport pressure to enact Sport Priority it was never funded. It’s called Salmon 2000.
Salmon are not difficult to raise, and raise in abundance. Witness the Fraser River’s possible return of 29 million Sockeye. However, it is also important to note how this run was restored after the Hell’s Gate slide. A non-political commission was established by Canada and the US. Managers and Biologists that worked on the project for decades where totally focused and dedicated to restoring the run. National and local politics were removed from the decision making process. Every one in the Commercial fishing Community in both the US and Canada respected their efforts, and indeed made huge personal and financial sacrifices to see this dream through to fruition. But now that the Commission is gone, the whole thing sits in jeopardy once more.