Hatchery and wild coho in the same boat this year

This year’s disastrous forecast for survival of coho means both wild and hatchery-produced salmon are likely returning at historically low numbers. This is contrary to a point made by a charter boat operator in a recent King 5 story.

In the broadcast version of the story, a charter boat operator makes the erroneous point that hatchery and wild coho are returning at different rates this year:

(Steve Kesling) says cancelling the fishery altogether is unnecessary as the problem is with wild fish. He and other recreational fishermen want to catch the hatchery coho and release the wild ones.


“It’s a win for the fish, it’s a win for the fishermen and it’s a tool we have to use, this year more than ever,” said Kesling.

The text version of the story expands on his point:

“Even catch and release fishing is better than no fishing,” he said.


There are mortality rates for wild fish associated with catch and release, however. Kesling argues it’s minimal and not enough to cancel an entire fishery. He and others want a selective fishery so they can still catch hatchery fish.

But, in fact, hatchery and wild fish are in the same boat.

For example, hatchery coho coming back to the Nisqually Tribe’s Kalama Creek hatchery are forecast to be just over 1,000 fish. Minimum escapement for the tribe’s Kalama Creek hatchery is 1,280 fish. This is compared to last year’s forecast of around 8,000 coho.

This is a pattern repeated all around Puget Sound hatcheries.

South Sound net pen coho (operated by the Squaxin Island Tribe) are expected to return to the tune of about 1,800 fish, compared to over 35,000 is a typical year.

And the reason this isn’t true is pretty simple.

When hatchery and wild coho leave for the ocean, they don’t develop different diets. So, the warm water blob and this year’s El Niño have the same impact on their survival. Warm water in the ocean leads to less nutritious food for all coho, meaning fewer, smaller and less healthy fish returning.

The across-the-board impact of ocean conditions is illustrated by this slide presented by state salmon managers in a public meeting earlier this month:’

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 9.32.43 AM

You can view the entire presentation here.

So, even the so-called “mark selective” fisheries that Kesling advocates for in the King 5 story would have disastrous impacts on these weak hatchery stocks.

Focusing sport fisheries on weak hatchery populations would mean smaller fisheries in the future. If hatcheries don’t see enough fish this fall to get as many eggs as they need, future runs won’t be as large. Even six or nine years from now, we could see smaller runs because the right decision wasn’t made this year.

Or, as Lorraine Loomis (NWIFC chair) said:

“We don’t know how many we’ll see, we don’t know how healthy they’ll be and we don’t know how many eggs they’ll have,” Loomis said. “That means we need to be careful, because if we don’t know how healthy these fish are when they come back, a lot of damage could be done.


“We have never seen runs this low, so we don’t know how well they might bounce back,” Loomis said. “Zero must be the starting place for fisheries management planning this year.”