Quinault Indian Nation
Grays Harbor, where the Quinault Indian Nation has closed its salmon fisheries three months early due to a lower-than-anticipated coho return. The Quinault also declared an economic emergency.

Situation 'Dire': Low Coho Salmon Returns Close Quinault Fisheries


Low returns of wild coho salmon are prompting the Quinault Indian Nation to close all its fisheries in Grays Harbor and Queets River and to declare an economic disaster because of the resulting hardship on fishermen and their families.

The tribe attributed the low returns to the so-called Godzilla El Niño that is under way in the Pacific, exacerbated by a “blob of warm water off the coast,” the Quinault said in a statement describing what it called a dire situation.

“Closing the fisheries was a tough decision,” said Quinault President Fawn Sharp in a statement. “The closure will have serious consequences and substantial financial losses for our community, but it's the right thing to do as stewards for future generations. We will be seeking economic relief for our fishermen and their families, as well as providing what support we can through the tribe.”

The decision came just days after similar moves by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which closed Grays Harbor and its tributaries to salmon fishing starting on October 26. On October 28 the WDFW further announced a limit of one hatchery-reared adult coho salmon daily on several lower Columbia River tributaries, to take effect on November 1 in the Deep, Grays, Elochoman, Cowlitz, Toutle, Green, Tilton, Cispus, Kalama, Lewis and Washougal rivers, as well as Mayfield Lake and Lake Scanewa,

The announcements affect sport, commercial and recreational fisheries and comes three months before the scheduled season end. The moves were made necessary by an extremely low return of coho, one that fell “significantly lower than the pre-season forecast,” the WDFW said in a statement.

“With such a low return, we need to take this step now to help us reach spawning goals and other conservation objectives,” said Steve Thiesfeld, regional fish program manager for WDFW, in the statement.

In the Columbia River tributaries, the early run coho are at about one-third the 26,000 that were predicted, said WDFW southwest regional fish manager Cindy LeFleur in a separate statement.

“The late run is just getting started, but we’re seeing the same trend,” LeFleur said. “We’re not ready to close the fishery completely for coho, but we do believe a more conservative approach is in order.”

The Quinault have been working closely with state officials to determine the best course of action.

“As we do every year, we participated fully in all pre-season planning with our state and federal co-managers, through the North of Falcon and Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission processes,” said Quinault Fisheries Policy spokesperson Ed Johnstone in the Nation’s statement. “After analyzing all available data, we concluded that the actual run sizes of wild coho returning to the Queets River and Grays Harbor are so far below expectations that closure was warranted. The closure will hurt our fishermen and reduce opportunity to harvest hatchery coho and other species but the situation was so dire that Quinault Nation felt that even incidental impacts to wild coho need to be avoided at this point in the season."

The crisis has caused the tribe and the WDFW to take a closer look at fisheries of other salmon and steelhead, the Quinault said. The El Niño and warm water are not going away any time soon, the tribe said. In addition, drought and adverse ocean conditions are forecast to persist for months and could have a marked impact on food chains, Johnstone said.

Adding to the concern, he said, was the poor health of the salmon that did make the trip back to spawn.

“The fish returning this year are not only low in numbers, but in poor physical shape,” Johnstone said. “There's a lot at stake. We want to minimize the potential to dig ourselves in a hole that will be hard to get out of. The condition of wild coho stocks from the Queets and Grays Harbor will affect future Quinault and ocean fisheries for years to come."

The salmon situation is reflective of ocean health as a whole, Sharp said, given myriad problems including acidification, sea level rise and increasingly strong storms. She took the opportunity to inject a cautionary note regarding climate change and potentially harmful industrial development.

“We worry about the uncertainty of climate change impacts and developments like dams and oil terminals that could have disastrous consequences for the environment,” she said. “We care about the Earth and the fish, wildlife, bugs, water, air and soil. These are not resources that can be wantonly exploited, but rather our relations that must be treated with honor and respect. Their future as well as ours has been entrusted to our care. It's not an easy job, but it’s one we must undertake, not only for Quinaults but also for everyone.”

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