State-Tribes Dispute Shuts Down Puget Sound Salmon Fishing Season, For Now

Can the stock be shared and protected?

State-Tribes Dispute Shuts Down Puget Sound Salmon Fishing Season, For Now
A hands-off stand by Washington treaty tribes on chinook salmon catch this season has led to the current shutdown of fisheries in and around Puget Sound. Among those affected are sport fishermen. Photo: Paul Wordingham.

The recreational salmon fishing season in Puget Sound could be grounded this year. For the first time in 32 years the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) was unable to agree with Puget Sound treaty tribes over the details of a required federal application to share the catch.

WDFW announced that as of Sunday May 1 that all fishing was indefinitely cancelled in several lakes and numerous rivers that flow into Puget Sound and that salmon and steelhead fishing is also closed in the Sound.

Can The Stock Be Shared and Protected?

Members of the sport fishing industry and WFDW officials say the tribes are trying to micromanage how and where sport fishers can catch salmon, while the tribes argue they’re trying to protect their treaty-granted access rights to a decreasing stock.

The recent impasse underscores a long-running disputes between the state and the tribes and increases uncertainty that they will cooperate on salmon fishing season rules in the future.

In order to harvest salmon protected under the federal Endangered Species Act the state and tribes have to receive a federal permit from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. Although they can file separately they have filed jointly for 32 years. The state’s permit allows recreational fisheries to operate in different regions. In the Puget Sound region it is known as the North of Falcon process in reference to  Cape Falcon in northern Oregon. That marks the southern border of the Washington salmon supply managed by the state.

As part of the joint permit the state and treaty tribes agree to restrictions on recreational fisheries where salmon pass through their water before reaching the tribal fishing areas. This is meant to ensure enough salmon are available for tribal members.

The 1974 federal court case U.S. v. Washington established tribes have a right to up to 50 percent of harvestable fish within their designated fishing areas.

State Seeking Federal Permit On Its Own: Outcome Unclear

At this point the state is operating in “unchartered territory” according to WDFW’s Inland Fish Program Manager Larry Phillips. It’s now “aggressively applying” for its own permit but for the first time in decades, and at the last minute.

Seeking a permit by itself is much more complicated for the state, which is why it has worked alongside the tribes in the past, said Phillips. WDFW is uncertain when it might obtain the federal permit and if it will be in time for this year’s salmon fishing season.

“We’re hopeful that the federal government will react in a way that expedites this process,” he said.

Treaty Tribes Expecting Their Permit By Month’s End

Meanwhile, the treaty tribes expect to receive their own permit by the end of the month, according to Education Services Manager Tony Meyer with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NIFC). The commission represents 20 Puget Sound tribes.

If the state is unable to get a permit for this season the true economic impacts won’t be known until some point into summer, according to Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA) President and Chief Executive Officer George Harris.  The NMTA is the country’s largest regional marine association, with over 700 members.

Marine Trade Is Feeling Effects Already

However, Harris said the effects are already being felt as a result of the non-tribal salmon season cancellation.

Scott Weedman owns 3 Rivers Marine, a Woodinville-based boat and fishing retailer. He said he has already had to cancel more than $3 million worth of orders to manufacturers for boats, trailers and motors as a result of the cancelled salmon fishing season. The canceled orders represents 25 percent of the overall annual sales the store generates from those three items, said Weedman.

But it’s not just the boating businesses and fisheries that could take a hit. The additional bump in business for marinas, fast food restaurants and local grocery stores during salmon fishing season might not fully materialize, as well.

However, the impacts may not be as severe as they might have been because the impasse was expected, said Harris.

The failed agreement was no surprise to boating businessman like Gary Krien, who owns and operates All Star Fishing and is the president of the Charter Boat Association of Puget Sound. He says the conflict has been going on for years but only now has “boiled over” to the point where both the state and the sport fishing industry can no longer accept what they see as tribal overreach.

“We have agreed in past years to accept some of that micromanaging in order to get a deal,” he said.

Conservation A Concern for Tribes

From the tribes’ perspective, the restrictions on sport fisheries are necessary to conserve certain types of salmon such as Chinook and Coho that are decreasing in numbers.

“When stocks are so low you have to err on the side of caution,” NIFC’s Meyer said. He added that the dispute reflects “the loss and degradation for salmon habitats” which is the bigger problem at hand. “For the tribes it means the treaty rights are at risk,” he said.

State Defends Its Harvest-Sharing Proposal

WDFW defended their proposal saying it would have set salmon conservation goals the tribes had previously agreed to.  It would have allowed the harvest of chinook fisheries but not coho due to the low stock expected.

The tribes rejected the state’s proposal because they wanted chinook protected along with coho, said Meyer.

What Now?

The question remains whether the schism on jointly applying for a federal permit is permanent. Krien of All Star Fishing hopes that by going their own way the state will be able to get a less restrictive permit than they have in recent years.

Harris, of the tribal fisheries council, sees this more as a temporary break until the larger issues are worked out. WDFW’s Phillips indicated that the state is still interested in working with the tribes in the future if they can finally come to an agreement.

In the meantime, anglers still have fishing opportunities elsewhere in the region where the necessary permits were filed and accepted. WDFW is providing a list of accessible salmon sport fisheries outside of the Puget Sound watershed.

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