Wild Coho Populations Protected For Future

On a sunny fall morning, Squaxin Island tribal fishermen stretch a net from the beach out into Zangle Cove, just north of Olympia. Bob and Karen Farr are setting a beach seine for coho salmon; this will be their second pull of the day.

“We’re looking for bubbles or ripples, any sort of sign that there is fish in there,” said Bob Farr. “Once they’re there, we can pull the net.” The coho will follow the outgoing tide into the net, he said. It looks more like hunting than fishing.

Suddenly, three coho break the surface inside the net, and dive back down. Bob pulls the net, closing the circle on the trapped salmon. Bob and Karen are two of dozens of Squaxin Island tribal fishermen that harvest coho salmon in the south sound. Most of the salmon are coming from the tribe’s net pen facility in Peale Passage, which provides sustainable treaty and sports fisheries in southern Puget Sound.

“This fishery on net pen coho is a good example of a harvest opportunity being made available, while a relatively weak wild salmon stock is protected,” said Joe Peters, tribal fisheries biologist. 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 fish tribal fishermen were harvesting were hatchery fish.

The tribe’s Peale Passage facility releases 1.8 million juvenile coho a year. “We were pleased to discover that virtually all the fish being caught were hatchery fish,” said Peters.

“Squaxin fishermen are simply not fishing where wild coho are, so they rarely see them,” said Peters. Because net pen salmon have no river or stream to return to, they mill around the area close to Peale Passage. Wild coho, on the other hand, don’t linger in the outside passages, and 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 the South Sound. “The harvest impacts on wild coho stocks are very limited,” said Peters. “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.”

For more information, contact: Joe Peters, Squaxin Island Tribe, Fisheries Biologist, (360) 432-3813, [email protected]. Emmett O’Connell, NWIFC, information officer, (360) 438-1181, ext. 392, [email protected]