Wild coho going back in the water

Because of a historically low coho forecast for deep South Sound this year, Squaxin Island tribal fishermen will not retain naturally spawning coho in their beach seine fishery.

“This fishery on hatchery coho was already a good example of a harvest opportunity being made available while a wild run is protected,” said Joe Peters, tribal fisheries manager. “Because of place and time restrictions, natural origin coho make up only three percent percent of the tribe’s catch.”

In a “mark-selective” fishery, fishermen release natural-origin fish, which they can distinguish because they haven’t had their adipose fin removed in a hatchery. The adipose fin is a soft, fleshy fin found behind the dorsal fin near the tail. Tribal fishermen will release natural origin coho in all beach seine fisheries, including those that target chinook and chum.

The hatchery run originates at the tribe’s net pen facility in Peale Passage, which provides sustainable treaty and sports fisheries in southern Puget Sound.

This year only 1,800 coho that originated from the net pens are expected to return. Usually more than 25,000 Squaxin net pen coho return yearly from 1.8 million released.

In recent years the tribe studied catches in the South Sound beach seine fishery and discovered that because of location, timing and gear restrictions, up to 97 percent of the tribal harvest were hatchery fish.

The Puyallup, Nisqually and Squaxin Island tribes are also closing their incommon fishing areas in Carr Inlet, around Fox Island and in Chambers Bay starting September 1 to protect coho.

“Squaxin fishermen don’t fish where wild coho are, so they rarely see them,” Peters said. Net pen salmon have no river or stream to return to, so they mill around the area close to Peale Passage. Wild coho, on the other hand, don’t linger in the outside passages; they head to nearby inlets where Squaxin Island fishers are not allowed.

Since the 1970s, the tribe has seen decreasing numbers of wild coho returning the streams in South Sound. “The harvest impacts on wild coho stocks are very limited,” Peters said. “The reason wild coho are having a hard time is because habitat is being lost and degraded.”

Creating sustainable fisheries without impacting weak wild stocks alone won’t rescue imperiled salmon stocks. “In addition to strong harvest and hatchery management, there needs to be dedication to habitat protection and restoration,” he said. “Solving the habitat question is the most important aspect to ensure these salmon will always be returning.”