Final Agreement 2023-24 Puget Sound Sport Fisheries


Each North of Falcon experience is unique and the 2023-24 season decisions upheld that tradition. Most participants expect annual changes, reflecting a different mix of forecasted stock abundances. We hope for consistency in the process so that our public input to WDFW is meaningful and the final decisions are understood. WDFW works hard to minimize surprise but, unfortunately, the course of proceedings toward co-manager agreement in this North of Falcon process ensures a chaotic conclusion.

Stillaguamish Chinook as the “Driver” – One consistent theme for Puget Sound sport fisheries is that seasons directed at chinook and other species will primarily be determined by management objectives of Stillaguamish chinook stocks in the new co-managers Puget Sound Chinook Resource Management Plan (RMP). A much greater predicted abundance of the naturally produced, unmarked stock defined a greater number of “harvestable” Stillaguamish chinook this year – 186 hatchery and wild compared to 142 last year. Policy agreement to share Stillaguamish chinook equally between Treaty and non-Treaty fisheries enabled WDFW to be efficient with the public part of the decision process.

The RMP defines management objectives in terms of exploitation rate limits (e.g., 9.0% and 14.0% for Stillaguamish natural and hatchery stocks, respectively). That feature of the RMP serves to stabilize the effect of large year-to-year swings in stock abundance. A greater abundance of wild Stillaguamish chinook gave the impression that sport season opportunities and catch limits would be increased, but model runs available in early March demonstrated the dampening effect of exploitation rate management. Modeling of last year’s seasons and quotas with 2023 predicted abundances showed that the 9.0% limit on natural Stillaguamish chinook would be slightly exceeded, leaving little room for expansion.

The final, co-manager agreed seasons reflect almost exactly the intended sharing agreement of 50% of the total harvestable Stillaguamish chinook (93 fish). Because tribal fisheries are non-selective and cannot efficiently harvest the full share of the Stillaguamish hatchery stock, the final agreement reflects more than 50% of the wild stock apportioned to tribal fisheries balance by more than 50% of the hatchery stock in mark-selective sport fisheries.

Other Chinook Stocks in 2023 – The wild card of this year’s Puget Sound public process was the influence of Chinook stocks other than Stillaguamish in determining the final seasons. WDFW responsibly alerted advisors and the general public that other Puget Sound chinook stocks, such as Snohomish, Nooksack Springs, and Nisqually could vie with Stillaguamish for the title of “most constraining” stock. Sharing between non-Treaty and Treaty fisheries of impacts for these other potentially constraining stocks was not discussed in the public forum, as with Stillaguamish chinook.

On Wednesday morning of the final week of this year’s North of Falcon process, and with just one day remaining to reach a timely co-manager agreement on the entire fisheries package for 2023-24, WDFW’s advisors were informed of the agency’s decision to cut the winter Area 5 fishery in half and eliminated the Nooksack River mark-selective sport fishery. Additionally, an eight-day coho fishery proposed in Area 9 during October was dropped due to Nooksack spring chinook impacts. WDFW also informed advisors that a winter fishing opportunity in Area 7 was no longer being considered, primarily due to the potential for increasing impacts on chinook stocks other than Stillaguamish. The Area 7 winter fishery was being actively supported by the sport fishing community, proposed in a manner that balanced increased impacts in the winter time period with a reduction in summer period opportunity.

In sharp contrast to sharing of Stillaguamish chinook impacts, the final 2023-24 agreement shows Treaty fisheries with 80% of the total impacts. Consistent with the concern expressed early in the process for Snohomish chinook stocks, WDFW alerted the public that the predicted abundance of Snoqualmie River chinook would likely require additional reductions to sport fisheries. This was particularly confusing to many advisors who were unfamiliar with the new RMP management objectives for Snohomish that required a more conservative impact limit if the predicted abundance of one or both Snohomish stocks (Skykomish and Snoqualmie) changed status. In addition, the new RMP defined a limit to total fishing impacts, including northern fisheries and Southern U.S. fisheries (SUS) of 20.0%. Canadian fishery impacts predicted this year increased considerably from 2022 predictions (11.3% vs 7.9%). Also, despite this year’s improved abundance forecast for Skykomish wild chinook (escapement of 2,481 vs 1,601), exploitation rates in nearly all Puget Sound fisheries increased, and the total ER for wild Skykomish chinook in model runs available at the start of the final week of the process exceeded the 20% limit, compared to just 15% with agreed fisheries for 2022. To meet that objective, along with potential tribal fishery adjustments, WDFW reduced quotas for summer sport fisheries in Area 5, Area 9, and Area 10. Despite a 64% increase in the abundance of wild Skykomish chinook and a 20% increase in the abundance of the hatchery stock, the mark-selective Skykomish River sport fishery was eliminated.

The final hours of co-manager negotiations in California did not allow WDFW time to deliver a clear and understandable explanation of the very difficult situation managers faced to meet management objectives for Skykomish Chinook. Warnings of impending constraints to fisheries made during public meetings prior to the process’s final week were not perceived by the public to be as consequential as the final reductions to sport fisheries demonstrated. This is a major problem for WDFW with the perennial co-manager process that squeezes critical final decisions into the last 24 hours of a three-month-long process. Perhaps the outcome for the 2023 North of Falcon process was unavoidable, but time is critical to success with WDFW’s public communication process.

There seemed to be no consistent or logical pattern to stock impacts modeled for Puget Sound fisheries. As an example, the sport chinook fishery in Area 5 this year was plagued with uniquely high impacts for Nooksack spring and Skykomish stocks, forcing WDFW to make quota and season reductions, while the adjacent Area 6 fishery was almost void of impacts on those stocks. Another inconsistency in impact patterns modeled this year was the significant increase with Skykomish chinook across all areas 5-11, while Stillaguamish impacts were essentially unchanged from last year. This disparate distribution of impacts is displayed in the pattern of adjustments to marine sport fisheries WDFW was compelled to make in order to meet the array of essentially the same management objectives this year compared to last year. In the following table, each marine area mark-selective chinook fishery is presented with the corresponding in-season controls (catch quotas or encounter limits). Fisheries in Area 5 winter, Area 9 summer, and Area 10 winter and summer appeared to bear the brunt of fishing opportunity reductions necessary to meet management objectives of the 2023-24 decision process. Some fisheries were spared from large reductions (e.g., Area 5 summer), while opportunities were significantly enhanced for other fisheries (e.g., Area 11).

Coho Opportunities – The major increases in wild coho abundance predicted for 2023 played an important role in increasing sport salmon fishing opportunities over recent years. The wild coho stocks most constraining to Puget Sound sport fishing opportunities in 2022 and previously were Snohomish, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Interior Fraser (Thompson) River stocks. Expanded seasons in most marine areas resulted from that wild stock abundance increase (see season & regulation table following). Also, the wild coho release regulation was relaxed for at least a portion of the summer seasons in all marine areas. Additional, late-season opportunity for non-selective coho sport fishing during part of October (Area 5 & Area 6), or all of October (Area 10, Area 11, and Area 12) was also a product of this year’s agreement. A non-selective coho sport fishing opportunity in Area 9 was proposed by WDFW (October 1-8) but Snohomish chinook incidental impacts associated with that fishery caused the agency to rescind that proposal.

Other Species – WDFW found little time to engage with public participants in this year’s North of Falcon meetings on fishing opportunities associated with chum salmon and pink salmon. The focus on pink salmon historically has been commercial fisheries, as reflected in the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s North of Falcon policy prioritizing (but not giving exclusive) non-Treaty share access of both chum salmon and pink salmon to commercial fisheries. Chum salmon runs to northern Puget Sound have been returning in very low numbers for many years but Central and South Sound runs are healthy and abundant. This year’s runs are predicted to be 350,000 in number and, while that number is lower than average for recent years, are sufficient to provide controlled Tribal and non-Treaty commercial harvest. In 2022, sport fishers in marine areas were not allowed to retain chum salmon, and sport fishing advocates argued for access given the very small harvest levels (averaging just 200 per year in Area 10 and Area 11). WDFW listened to that petition and will allow chum to be retained during October when coho fishing is also allowed. The peak of those chum runs is in late October and early November. And WDFW may relax restrictions in other areas and times when in-season information is available. Pink salmon runs in 2023 of Puget Sound origin or those stocks returning through northern Puget Sound to the Fraser River are strong in number, at least from a sport fishing perspective, but bag limits will not be expanded beyond the 2-fish salmon limit in marine areas. Excellent sport fishing opportunities will be available this year – peaking in September -for large returns predicted to the Skagit, Snohomish, Green, Puyallup, and Nisqually rivers.

Conclusion -The tremendous technical and policy capabilities of WDFW’s management team were displayed throughout the 2023 North of Falcon public process. Without the expertise in fishery impact modeling, in particular, the hard work of Derek Dapp and Angelika Hagen-Breaux, far fewer positive outcomes would have been produced from the co-manager negotiations. Also, WDFW’s lead for policy in the extremely difficult environment of Puget Sound co-management of salmon fisheries – Mark Baltzell – displayed acute listening skills in the public forum that translated well to proposals made to the Tribes in the interest of maximizing sport fishing opportunities. Although the public is unable to directly observe Mark’s performance in the closed, co-management negotiations, indirect reports of those meetings and the specific outcomes indicate strong leadership.

Unfortunately, that strong team effort by WDFW is diminished by the plodding and directionless proceedings toward a co-manager agreement over the two months in this North of Falcon process. Very simply, waiting to make decisions until the final days of the schedule tick down ensures a chaotic conclusion. The success of this process depends on the proper functioning of the complex technical components of the management regime. Forcing the process into such a tight time period guarantees that mistakes will be made, or that decisions about our valuable fisheries and fish resources will be hurried and not thoroughly considered. Especially from the viewpoint of the public that has no access to the co-management decision process, and very limited access to the public agency negotiating in our interest, the current North of Falcon decision-making scheme is quite a mess. Improving that process will be a huge undertaking if the flaws are recognized by the collective co-managing entities.

WDFW could improve public communication by addressing some of the issues and challenges of the 2023 North of Falcon presented in this review. One example of progress would be a WDFW effort to provide a comprehensive public review of the events that led to the unique Snohomish Chinook management situation with recommendations for constructive change. A reconstituted and energetic Puget Sound Sports Fishing Advisory Group engaged in this project could be a successful public partnership, but has been less than fully engaged in important decision process issues.

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Brett Rosson