Test fishery data to protect stocks — now and in the future

Two years ago, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe embarked on an effort to learn more about the impact sport fisheries have on salmon runs. 

Not only has the program worked—gathering and sharing crucial information such as encounter rates, fish size and hooking locations—it’s also caught on, with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians launching a similar program.

Now both tribes are advocating for similar efforts elsewhere. Between the more accurate data and close collaboration with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), fisheries managers say it’s an example of what co-management could—and should—do to protect stocks for the future.

“This is how co-management should work,” said Muckleshoot harvest management manager Mike Mahovlich. “It’s great for the resource for the next seven generations.”

Phil Hamilton of the Muckleshoot Tribe’s fish commission was an early advocate for the program, arguing the tribe needed better data on the impact sport fishing had on local stocks. 

The fish commission backed the project and purchased a boat and gear.

Hamilton said the key to determining sport fishers’ impact is to copy what they’re doing, right down to the type of lures.

“When we established the program I was adamant: It had to reflect what was happening on the water. The same fishing area. The same gear,” he said. “We need a true picture of what’s happening.”  

Mahovlich said WDFW, with its limited budget, didn’t have the resources to cover as big an area as it wanted; when Muckleshoot launched its own effort the two governments were able to coordinate, share data and make key decisions about whether to continue or close selective fisheries.

“If you don’t trust the data, you can put a boat in the water, cooperate with the state and get better data,” he said.

To get that data, tribal employees simulate what sport fishers are doing as closely as possible. When they encounter fish, they collect numerous data points, including DNA samples, encounter rate, fish size and whether each fish is hatchery- or natural-origin. The information is immediately entered into a tablet and shared with the state. The respective staffs also confer on what they’re seeing during weekly meetings.

The collected data allows co-managers to make better-informed decisions about how to manage fisheries. This year’s fishery started later after it was determined, based on collected data, that a February start would have less impact on juveniles, Mahovlich said.

Muckleshoot’s program caught the attention of the Puyallup Tribe, which launched its own last year following the advocacy of the tribal council and Fred Dillon, who was the fisheries department’s policy representative at the time. 

“Muckleshoot was saying how it made a big difference,” said Puyallup Tribe fisheries resource policy representative Rodney Sisson. “If we can get more tribes doing it, that data can be used in real time.” 

“We saw the data the Muckleshoot Tribe was collecting,” said Puyallup hatchery specialist Dale Varbel, who participated in the test fishery and was skipper of the test boat.

The collected data can help protect future stocks, Varbel said. 

“When we’re out there collecting data, it’s not just to shut a fishery down,” he said. “It’s to see where the fish are going, and what stocks are being impacted by time and area with DNA sampling. The data is important for forecasting when there are returns.”

Puyallup’s test fishery began in June 2022 and wrapped up in November with weekly co-manager meetings throughout the season.

Those involved with the program are thrilled with the early results.

“It’s important data coming down the line,” said Puyallup Tribe harvest manager Chris Phinney. “We learned a lot this summer fishing side-by-side with WDFW test boats and the public.”

Puyallup Tribe fisheries policy representative Rodney Sisson takes part in a test fishery in 2022. Test fishery participants use the same gear as sports fishers to gather data with an eye toward protecting stocks. Photo: Trevor Pyle