As annual regional fisheries negotiations get underway for 2020, changes may be proposed for how sockeye salmon are managed in the Skagit River and Baker Lake.
The changes would deal with how fish are shared between tribal and recreational fishermen.
“Particularly in the last three years there has been a pretty good harvest inequity between the state and the tribes,” state Department of Fish & Wildlife Salmon Policy Analyst Aaron Dufault told the Fish & Wildlife Commission during a Dec. 14 meeting. “We’ve had some really rough years where the recreational harvest is about half of what the treaty harvest is.”
Dufault told the Skagit Valley Herald that in years in which fewer fish than expected return to the river system, tribes often harvest thousands more than recreational fishermen.
Although some years the opposite occurs, the numbers over the long term are in the tribes’ favor. From 2010 to 2019, tribes caught 20,961 more sockeye, according to Fish & Wildlife records.
Fish & Wildlife now has a few ideas to talk over with tribal co-managers during the North of Falcon meetings in March and April, where fisheries are set for Washington and Oregon.
“We want to bring a suite of options,” Dufault said.
Possibilities include reducing the overall number of salmon that can be harvested, expanding recreational fishing on the river, or using a payback program where harvest allowances can be set based on differences documented in previous years.
While the aim is to help make things more fair for recreational fishermen, Fish & Wildlife must ensure any changes don’t harm treaty-backed tribal fisheries, either.
“Every single one of our options has an effect of essentially limiting tribal harvest to get more fish in the lake,” Dufault said. “Our first priority is finding something that moves the needle on harvest equity to improve things for our (recreational) fishers ... that doesn’t cripple their fishery either.”
The fish at the heart of the discussion are called Baker River sockeye because the river — and the lake above the dam — is the final destination for adult sockeye returning to spawn and create future generations.
The fish make their way from marine waters up the Skagit River each summer.
Along their journey, recreational fishermen are allowed to fish in the Skagit River from Mount Vernon to Lyman, and the Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle tribes are allowed to use gillnets from the mouth up to the Lower Baker Dam.
Some of the fish that make it to the Baker River are transferred to Baker Lake where recreational fishermen have another chance to catch them.
Dufault said in years when fewer fish return than expected, such as in 2019, the tribes catch a larger share because they are fishing first and using gear that is more effective.
Fish & Wildlife Commission Chair Larry Carpenter, who lives in Mount Vernon, said after hearing from several unhappy fishermen at the Dec. 14 meeting that he supports efforts to strike a better balance.
Local fisherman Steve Fransen also spoke at the December meeting, offering a historical perspective on the sockeye population that with the help of a hatchery program run by Puget Sound Energy has rebounded significantly in recent years.
“I’m really pleased that you guys have a problem that we have so many salmon that now you have to figure out how to sort out the catch,” he said.
Edward Eleazer, Fish & Wildlife’s fish program manager for the north Puget Sound region, said PSE is now preparing to expand its capacity for raising young fish at Baker Lake, thereby increasing the number of fish that will return to the river system each year.
The goal of the expansion is to bring returns into the 100,000 range.
“We hope to see our goal of 100,000 returning adults in the next 10-year time frame, and the harvest equity to be resolved,” Eleazer said.