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The warm “blob” of last September, reaching 3.5 million square miles, was the second largest on record, but it has since dissipated with cooler ocean conditions.
Map: NOAA via WDFW

Salmon experts predict more wild coho but fewer Chinook in Puget Sound this year

Greater numbers of wild coho salmon are expected to return to Puget Sound later this year, according to forecasts released last week, but threatened Puget Sound Chinook stocks are likely to see another decline.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The 2021 salmon forecasts were announced Friday during an online video conference with sport and commercial fishers and other interested people (TVW telecast). The annual meeting serves to launch negotiations that, when completed in April, will prescribe fishing seasons for the coming summer and fall.

Protecting so-called “weak stocks” from fishing pressure continues to be a challenge. Salmon managers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will consult with representatives of area tribes to identify times and places for fishing that will still allow adequate numbers of spawning salmon to get back to their home streams.

Low numbers of salmon predicted for some areas of Puget Sound will force managers to make some tough choices, said Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

“If every salmon run across the state was healthy, our jobs would be easy,” he said in a news release. “But the unfortunate truth is that some stocks just won’t be able to support fisheries and are likely to impact fisheries even for healthier runs. We’ll work hard alongside the co-managers to stay within our shared conservation goals while still offering chances to get out and fish this year whenever possible.”

Some 246,000 wild coho are expected to return to Puget Sound this year, up about 51 percent from last year but still 15 percent below the 10-year average, said Chad Herring, a fishery policy analyst for Fish and Wildlife. In contrast, hatchery coho are expected to increase by 8 percent.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

While fishing opportunities could come from the increased coho run, managers must be careful to protect wild Chinook, which remain at risk of extinction. This year’s total Chinook run size (hatchery and wild, not including spring Chinook) is estimated to be down 11 percent from last year’s forecast of 233,000 fish and 2 percent below the recent 10-year average. Keep in mind that the recent 10-year average for wild Chinook is 24 percent below the 10-year average recorded when Puget Sound Chinook were placed on the Endangered Species List back in 1999 — so things are not looking good for Chinook.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife recently began increasing production of Chinook at some hatcheries in an effort to help the Southern Resident Killer Whales, which frequent Puget Sound and consume a lot of salmon, primarily Chinook. The result of that increased production could be seen in coming years, although the effects on wild Chinook have been hotly debated.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Wild Chinook make up just 12 percent of the total run size, with hatchery Chinook making up the remainder, so one strategy for increasing fishing opportunities while protecting wild fish is to shift fishing efforts to “terminal areas” closer to the hatcheries during carefully timed periods.

To protect wild Chinook and coho, anglers may be allowed to keep only hatchery fish while releasing wild fish. Young hatchery Chinook and coho are typically marked by removing their adipose fins before release. During the COVID-19 pandemic, marking equipment housed in special mobile units went into operation around the clock to get the work done while limiting the number of staffers working in confined spaces, according to Kelly Cunningham. director of the Fish Program for WDFW. The marking program successfully handled between 140 million and 160 million juvenile salmon with no delay in their scheduled release, he said.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Chum salmon, largely taken by commercial fishers, have been in a general decline since their historical peak in 2002, research biologist Mickey Agha said during Friday’s conference.

“Last year, I noted that in 2019 we had the lowest Puget Sound return since 1979,” Agha said. “Unfortunately, preliminary estimates for 2020 are revealing a return only slightly higher.”

The graph showing the chum forecast, shown on this page, includes a year-old forecast of a higher run last year, because the hard data about the actual run size are still being compiled. That goes for the other species as well.

“As many of you in the chum industry are aware, it was a rather poor year fishing for the limited opportunity that was available,” Agha said. “South Puget Sound and Hood Canal returned poorly, as compared to the long-term averages. Nevertheless, there were some bright spots where we met conservation goals head-on and reached our escapement goals (for the number of spawners reaching their home streams). That was along the coast for a few populations and for a few populations in the Central to North Puget Sound.”

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Chum returns to Puget Sound this year are expected to be only slightly better than for 2019, one of the worst years on record. Hatchery fish make up roughly half the run size of fall chum salmon. The total run size this year is estimated at 526,000.

Meanwhile, 2021 will be a “pink year,” as it is called, reflecting the fact that the vast majority of pink salmon spawn in odd-numbered years. The past decade has been a period of both boom and bust for pinks, which are almost all wild salmon. This year, about 2.9 million pinks are expected to return to Puget Sound, vastly outnumbering chum. That return would be similar to 2019, following a very low year in 2017.

Elsewhere, anglers online for Friday’s presentation heard some welcome news about coho in the Columbia River. The forecast calls for 1.6 million fish among the early and late runs, a dramatic increase from last year’s 363,000, according to estimates.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Although that big number is encouraging, there is a need to protect other at-risk stocks in the region, said Kyle Adicks, intergovernmental salmon manager for Fish and Wildlife.

“All of our forecasting indicates a strong coho return to the Columbia, but a lot can change between now and when the fish start to arrive, including out in the ocean,” Adicks said in a news release. “We’ll be keeping a close eye throughout this year’s salmon-season-setting process on stocks of low abundance.”

Fishing along the Washington Coast is expected to be a mixed bag, with some stocks up and others down. Poor returns anticipated for the Queets and other coastal rivers could limit fishing off the coast, despite the large numbers of coho returning to the Columbia River.

Graph: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

All these forecasts are based on computer modeling that factors in many variables, from the number of juvenile salmon that leave the streams to the number of adult salmon returning in the previous cycle to the number of “jacks” that return a year before they are due. Also considered are ocean conditions, such as temperature, which have a major influence on the movement of salmon and their food supply.

Higher surface temperatures in the ocean off the West Coast in recent years are believed to be a major factor in the decline of salmon, which tend to do better in cooler waters. Global warming can affect salmon through every life stage, from the stream where they hatch out of gravel to the Pacific Ocean where they grow and mature.

Making things worse is a recurring patch of warm ocean water nicknamed “the blob” by Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond. Sometimes stretching from California to Alaska, the highest temperatures since 1982 were recorded during a period from 2014 to 2016. (See map at top of this page.) Last year, the blob’s reappearance brought temperatures nearly as high.

Lower-than-average sea surface temperatures have prevailed near the equator during February, portending better conditions for salmon in the Northwest. Map: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Since then, ocean temperatures have declined to more normal conditions, which should benefit salmon, according to Marisa Litz, research scientist for Fish and Wildlife who spoke during Friday’s meeting. Other good news is the current mountain snowpack of between 95 and 150 percent of normal, which should help provide adequate flows of cool water during the critical spring period for young salmon, she said.

The Pacific Ocean currently remains in a cooler phase called La Niňa, which has resulted in below-normal ocean temperatures from the west-central Pacific Ocean to our region along the coast, according to a report released yesterday by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (PDF 3.3 mb).

“In the last week, negative anomalies strengthened across most of the equatorial Pacific Ocean,” the report says, providing additional atmospheric evidence of La Niña conditions.

The federal forecasters say there is a 60-percent chance that our current ocean conditions will transition by June to neutral — that is more average conditions midway between the cooler La Niña and the warmer El Niño. These more normal conditions are likely to persist into fall, according to most models.

These cooler ocean temperatures should help with the growth and survival of salmon that return to Puget Sound in the next couple years, although many other factors also play a role in the lives of salmon.

The latest salmon forecasts, a list of upcoming public meetings, and other information, can be seen on the North of Falcon webpage on the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

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