Salmon Fishing Season Delay Takes An Economic Toll In Puget Sound Region

Salmon Fishing Season Delay Takes An Economic Toll In Puget Sound Region
Captain Matt McCulloch's charter fishing boat business, operating out of Shilshoe Bay in Seattle and Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, has suffered a 50 percent drop in revenues compared to the same period last year. That's due to the delayed start of the 2016 salmon fishing season for sport fishermen in and near Puget Sound. The season may finally begin June 24, nearly two months late. Photo for Lens: TJ Martinell

Puget Sound’s recreational salmon fishing season is expected to open at the end of this week, after a nearly two-month delay caused by a stalled federal permitting process. Stakeholders report that the economic toll for the sport fishing industry in Puget Sound has already run into the millions of dollars. Lingering uncertainty over next year’s salmon fishing season suggests that charter boat operators may decide to shift their focus toward other fisheries.

Matt McCulloch is a guide and operator of the Seattle-based Tyee Charters, which offers daily salmon fishing trips in Puget Sound. Normally in mid-June, he’s surrounded by other boats on Shilshole Bay. But on a recent excursion during a warm, sunny day he only came across a handful of other charter boats.

50 Percent Drop In Revenue

McCulloch has suffered a 50 percent drop in revenue compared to the same time last year, as a result of the delayed salmon fishing season. It’s a similar situation for other local charter boat business owners he knows.

While salmon fishing season is open in other areas in the state outside of Puget Sound, they aren’t conveniently located to Seattle like Shilshole Bay, said McCulloch.

“People want to fish right here,” he said. “They want to be able to fish in their backyard.”

Sport Fishing Industry’s Impact Big

Washington’s sport fishing industry is a major source of economic activity and state revenue. In 2013 the industry provided 16,000 jobs and $620 million in salaries and wages. That same year, there were nearly a million anglers generating over a $1 billion in retail sales of boats, fishing gear, and more. The industry also generated $120 million in state and local taxes.

In Puget Sound, the industry has taken a hit since the salmon fishing season failed to start in the beginning of May. That’s when Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials and Puget Sound tribes couldn’t reach a salmon-harvesting pact for the first time in over 32 years.

Boldt Decision Framework

The framework for agreement is based on the 1974 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Washington, also known as the Boldt Decision. It reaffirmed the tribes’ role as co-managers of salmon and fish alongside the state. The current harvest-sharing agreement process allows tribes and the state to file jointly for a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries permit. It is needed to harvest salmon protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Late last month, WDFW and the local tribes were able to come to an agreement. WDFW officials had hoped to get the federal permit by June 10, but now the expected approval date is June 24.

Slowdown’s Economic Impacts Growing

The fishing season slowdown has affected not just charter boat businesses, but boat manufacturers and fishing supply stores. Northwest Fishing Industry Association Executive Director Liz Hamilton told Lens one of their members has had to cancel $6 million in salmon fishing-related orders, while another member has had to let two workers go due to the lack of customers.

One manufacturer with their association might not be able to survive financially until the end of the year, Hamilton said. “The effects of this have really played out,” she added.

‘Hanging By Our Coattails’

McCulloch said the extended process to open the recreational salmon fishing season has left businessmen like himself “hanging by our coattails,” because it’s difficult to book customers until they actually know for sure the salmon season will be underway.

Recently McCulloch was forced to cancel several charters for Father’s Day weekend when the federal permit failed to get approved last week, and customers weren’t willing to fish for something other than salmon, he said.

Projecting Changes In Wild Salmon Population

Straining state-tribal relations are federal government projections of a decreasing supply of wild salmon for them to share. According to NOAA, returning wild Chinook salmon and coho are expected to be at lower levels than previous years.

This year some tribes had sought to increase protection for coho salmon migrating through Puget Sound tributaries. Meanwhile, state and recreational fishing industry stakeholders felt the proposed restrictions on recreational salmon fisheries were too great.

After they failed to reach an agreement, the tribes filed for their own NOAA permit. At the same time the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) allowed some of the tribes’ smaller and ceremonial salmon fisheries to open while the permit was being reviewed.

Catch-And-Release Affected

Although the dispute between the state and tribes concerns the harvest, the NOAA permit affects other aspects of salmon fishing industry. A big part of the charter boat business model is catch-and-release.

In addition to a strong base of loyal customers, tourists and businessmen make up a significant portion of McCulloch’s clientele eager to pay to get their picture taken with salmon they’ve caught. That the salmon may have to be returned, alive, to the waters from which they’re caught, doesn’t deter them. However, catch-and-release isn’t allowed without the NOAA permit, because even though the fish aren’t harvested, catching them still has impacts.

WDFW officials hope to improve the harvest agreement process next year. However, WDFW Inland Fish Program Manager, Larry Phillips says it’s impossible to know how it will play out.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to come to an agreement, but…there’s no textbook on how to do this right.”

Separate Permits: Tricky

Separate salmon fisheries permits sought by the state and tribes could in theory better assure an on-time start of recreational salmon fishing in Puget Sound, but instead might present a challenge for NOAA when sorting through their submitted plans. Unless the permits adhere to the same harvest sharing agreement, their proposed quotes can add up to more fish than is available to catch, according to NOAA Public Affairs Officer Michael Milstein.

The trouble is, it’s not clear who makes the final decision on state-tribes harvest sharing. “There’s not a vehicle to resolve a dispute through the Endangered Species Act (ESA) process,” Milstein said. “That’s not what that process is for.”

More Crab, Flounder

As they wait for the salmon fishing season to start, some charter boat fishing businesses have turned to more crabbing and flounder fishing to make up for the lost revenue. If the restrictions on salmon fishing continue, this shift might be permanent.

However, conservation guidelines limit the amount of additional crab and flounder fishing in the region, said Hamilton.

The recreational sport fishing industry has one thing going for it; the demand for salmon fishing isn’t going away anytime soon, says Hamilton.

“This is the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “Salmon is king.”

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