Surprisingly Fewer Chum Salmon Return to Puget Sound Than Expected

Chum salmon returns this year have been dismal in much of Puget Sound.

“This season may be going down as the worst harvest of chum on record for Squaxin,” said Joe Peters, Squaxin Island tribal natural resources policy representative.

Chum sport and tribal fishing were shut down in South Sound after test fisheries found far fewer fish than forecast.

The state and tribal co-managers conduct an annual chum test fishery at Apple Cove Point near Kingston. It’s a real-time check of the size of the run, used to adjust harvest quotas for chum throughout South Puget Sound.

The preliminary forecast for chum was 555,000, but the test fishery results were so poor, the forecast was revised to 243,000.

“These returns are the worst in 20 years, and we don’t have a real culprit identified,” said Bill Patton, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission South Sound biologist. “Returns were supposed to be decent.”

The Squaxin Island Tribe’s surveys showed that Totten Inlet, where Kennedy Creek is a major chum stream, will make escapement – the number of fish needed to sustain the run – but Eld Inlet is still between 40 to 60 percent of what it needs.

“It’s been beyond depressing,” said Mike Huff, Suquamish Tribe’s hatchery manager.

The tribe’s Grovers Creek Hatchery had a total of 720 chum adults return, with an egg take of 419,000.

“Normally we have about 2,000 chum salmon to spawn and get 2.5 million eggs into our hatchery, but this is the lowest we’ve ever had,” he said.

Hood Canal’s preseason forecast was reduced by 23 percent over the commercial fishing season, said Abigail Welch, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s fisheries biologist.

Welch suspects the 2015 warm ocean conditions are in part to blame. The tribe released nearly 1.3 million fry in 2015 – the largest number in seven years – hoping for a fruitful return in 2019, she said. Only 500 chum returned to the tribe’s Point Julia Hatchery in Port Gamble Bay. On average, more than 4,000 fish return to the bay.

The tribe’s fishermen had minimal fishing effort due to the low returns. In October, 344 chum were harvested. Nobody fished the bay in November.

In South Hood Canal, only 246 fish returned to the Skokomish Tribe’s Enatai Hatchery, with 637,000 eggs taken for spawning, said Robert Blankenship, the tribe’s hatchery manager. The tribe normally spawns 2,500 fish for 3.5 million eggs, based on average fecundity of 2,800 eggs per female.

Tulalip Tribes’ salmon enhancement biologist Mike Crewson says that climate change is having an impact on fish in both marine and fresh water. Tulalip’s Bernie “Kai Kai” Gobin hatchery had its lowest egg take ever.

“This year’s hatchery chum run and egg take is about 90 percent below average and 95 percent below what we’ve seen in a good year,” he said. “The run is close to 80 percent males, which further limits the number of eggs we can produce.”

Skagit River Chum Haven’t Been Fished for a Decade

Skagit River fisheries managers have been alarmed by small chum returns for a decade.

“We’ve been scratching our heads about why the chum aren’t coming back,” said Scott Schuyler, Upper Skagit Tribe’s natural resources director. “When we tried to broodstock for our hatchery program during the week that should have been the peak return, we caught two fish. In the nineties, we had a quarter of a million fish return.”

Chum used to be one of the staples for the Upper Skagit Tribe, Schuyler added.

“It’s how we survived through the winter. We haven’t had a chum fishery since 2007 and that was a bust.”

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe has been developing a hatchery chum supplementation program on the Sauk River, a tributary to the Skagit, for the past few years. In 2017, the tribe’s natural resources department released 20,000 fry, which should return as adults in fall 2020.

While the goal is to collect 50 male and 50 female adults to spawn, Sauk-Suiattle hatchery staff collected 14 of each, providing 34,000 eggs. The eggs will be incubated to eyed stage at the Marblemount Hatchery on the Skagit River and then raised in remote site incubators on a tributary to the Sauk.

“In 2008, returns in the Skagit dropped to the worst level historically,” said Grant Kirby, Sauk-Suiattle fisheries biologist. “The Sauk population is the smallest of the sub-populations in the Skagit River system.”