Decades old co-management benefit today’s South Sound chum salmon

SQ chum genetics (2) small for web
Michael West, fisheries technician for the Squaxin Island Tribe, samples a chum salmon in a South Sound creek.

Fisheries management decisions made decades ago by the Squaxin Island Tribe and their state salmon co-managers are still paying dividends for the Kennedy Creek chum run.

In the early 1980s – just a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the tribe’s status as a salmon co-manager – the tribe and state made some dramatic changes.

“The most drastic step was that the tribe stopped fishing for four years to help build the run back up,” said Joe Peters, harvest management biologist for the tribe. “Such a big change wouldn’t work everywhere, but there was habitat for the chum to return to on Kennedy Creek.”

The state also stopped mining chum eggs out of Kennedy Creek to support their hatchery programs.

The most important step was negotiating with tribal and non-tribal fishermen farther north in Puget Sound to create a window in their fisheries to allow South Sound chum to pass. “For decades now, there’s a week to ten-day break in those northern fisheries,” Peters said. “They can still fish up there, but there’s less pressure on the fish trying to make their way down here.”

Kennedy Creek has become a place with these massive yearly runs because its a great place for chum habitat wise, but also because we manage fisheries well,” Peters said.

The tribe continues to actively manage fisheries on Kennedy Creek chum. Five years ago, the tribe began restricting its coho fishery at a popular fishing site to protect the wild chum.

The tribe closed coho fishing at Arcadia Beach, a tribally owned boat launch that is one of the easiest spots for tribal fishers to access. But the beach is also where a lot of chum returning to Kennedy Creek happen to be during coho fishing season. “Usually, chum and coho migrate during different time windows, but Kennedy Creek chum tend to show up early, so they can be caught during coho season right around Arcadia,” Peters said.

An unusually high number of chum were caught at Arcadia during coho season, That led the tribe to close its chum fishery for a couple of weeks in November to ensure enough fish made it back to Kennedy Creek. “Arcadia is a small area to close during coho, but the benefits we’re likely to see during chum fishing outweigh the cost,” Peters said.

Returns to the spawning grounds are closely monitored to aid in-season fisheries management. By keeping a close eye on the salmon in the streams, the tribe can decide whether to open fisheries in adjoining bays.

“If the tribe wants to open a chum fishery in Totten Inlet, for example, we need to make sure enough chum salmon are making their way onto the spawning grounds on Kennedy Creek, which flows into Totten,” said Peters. “Spawning surveys are the only way to really get a good idea of how many salmon are going up the creeks to spawn.”

“The chum runs that the Squaxin Tribe fishes on are healthy because of well managed fisheries and good habitat. The health of these runs emphasize the need for protecting and restoring salmon habitat,” Peters said. “Without good spawning habitat, chum salmon would be in deep trouble.”