How habitat was a big reason behind this year’s low salmon runs

Despite better forecasts than last year, low returns of both chinook and coho salmon will likely again constrain fisheries throughout western Washington.

Last year tribal and state co-managers faced record low coho forecasts in developing a conservative package of fisheries. An additional concern this year is the low forecasted return of spring chinook to the Nooksack and Dungeness Rivers.

Coho returns will be a specific issue as co-managers put together fishing packages. The joint fisheries package developed by the co-managers must protect extremely low populations of coho salmon to the Queets, Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers.

Fewer than 19,000 coho are expected to come back to the Skagit, less than 20 percent of returns in recent years. The Stillaguamish projection is about 9,000 coho, about a third of recent returns.

“Shaping conservative and conservation-based fisheries will be our goal this year,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Low returns are attributed to a combination of disappearing salmon habitat, poor ocean conditions and climate change. Spring Chinook and coho spend the first year of their lives in freshwater, so they’re more vulnerable to effects of lost and damaged habitat. Those returning this fall faced unprecedented drought conditions during summer 2015.

Both the Skagit and the Stillaguamish rivers experienced the lowest flows in recorded history in the summer of 2015. Low water levels lead to high temperatures that can be lethal to salmon throughout their lifecycle.

In addition to the effects of drought these fish faced two years ago, salmon habitat conditions continue to decline in both the Skagit and Stillaguamish watersheds

For example, according to the treaty tribes’ State of Our Watersheds Report, several small coho streams in the Skagit watershed are at risk of high water temperatures, even in good years. Forest buffers that help regulate temperatures in those streams declined between 2006 and 2011.

“We are not turning the corner in the effort to restore salmon habitat; things are getting worse each year,” Loomis said. “Fisheries will continue to suffer as long as we’re not making progress restoring habitat.”

The Pacific Fishery Management Council will approve its final harvest guidelines for ocean fisheries in mid-April. It will announce three options to establish parameters for tribal and state fisheries managers in negotiating this year’s fishing seasons.