By Jordan Nailon
For Peninsula Daily News
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The regulation change that has many area anglers rankled relates to the full closure of the spring and summer hatchery chinook fishery.
Fishing guides and piscatorial tourists feel slighted by the recent closure of the popular fishery while the state, sport anglers and conservationists fear that the rule change does not go far enough to reinvigorate the dwindling wild chinook run.
In late April, the state announced its decision to eliminate the spring and summer salmon fishery on the Hoh. The shutdown is effective through Aug. 31, at the start of the fall salmon fishery.
This regulation change comes on the heels of a previous decision by the state to eliminate the option to harvest wild stock salmon during the spring/summer run on the Hoh.
“So if a guide is selling a trip for salmon on the lower Hoh in the summer, he's going to have to find another option,” said state fish biologist Mike Gross, who recommended the Sol Duc River as a replacement destination for anglers.
The timing of the closure's announcement, less than one month before the regularly scheduled opener, only added to the consternation of many guides, many of whom already had salmon trips on the Hoh booked out in advance.
In response to the closure, fishing advocates have been circulating a petition around the West End that implores the state to allow anglers the ability to “harvest hatchery salmon and steelhead on the Hoh.”
At the Forks Coffee Shop, more than 100 signatures were collected in the first four days.
Jim Kerr, operator of Rain Coast Guide Service, laughed when asked about the validity of the guides' concerns.
“Ha. I had groups coming from Norway. I had groups coming from the Cayman Islands,” he said.
Kerr said that when these longtime customers and visitors to the Olympic Peninsula found out about the regulation changes on the Hoh, they opted to cancel their plane tickets and motel reservations.
“I only laugh because what else are you going to do?” Kerr said.
Matt Enges, owner of Sensei Guide Service, noted that the repercussions of the state's decision are already rippling through the community.
“All the gravel bars, and what not, are usually full for Memorial Day weekend, because the Hoh is usually open on the 15th [of May],” Enges said.
“That's usually a huge draw. Even if their [tourists] main objective isn't fishing, they still love to catch those kings.”
This year the flock of spring king salmon seekers did not descend on the Hoh, leaving whole stretches of river empty, along with seats in guide boats, beds in motels and booths in restaurants.
“There's really not much we can do,” Enges said. “You just tell your people, 'Look, this is what happens. You've got to write your congressman and tell them you're not happy.'”
Meanwhile, Kerr said local fishermen had been operating under the impression that a dialogue between the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and area fishing proponents was still ongoing in regards to possible salmon regulation changes on the Hoh.
“The thing that got under my skin about that springer closure is that we'd had a sit down [with the state] the year before about that possibility,” Kerr said.
At that time, Kerr said, the state indicated that it had no plans to close the spring/summer salmon fishery on the Hoh River, with the promise that it would keep the area fish community “posted” on any developments.
“They did not give us that heads up,” said Kerr, who pointed out that the lack of notice made it difficult for guides as well as tourists to come up with alternate plans.
The state contends that the evolving regulation decisions on the Hoh River met its public process protocol and was discussed at a series of public forum meetings between January and February of this year. It also indicated that the timing of the release was not out of the ordinary.
“It wasn't a large number of guides,” that showed up to the meetings, Gross said. “But they are a vocal group. I'd talked to some of them and knew their preferences [for regulation amendments], but other things were weighted more heavily at that time.”
Gross is not exactly exalting over the expected results of this fish management experiment either.
“It [targeting hatchery salmon] was not a large impact on wilds. But [eliminating] it was something we could do when we looked at our options,” Gross said.
By ending the spring and summer fisheries, Gross insists that the state was able to stave off the elimination of other fisheries on the Hoh during co-management negotiations with the Hoh tribe.
The fall salmon fishery is at the top of that list of potential closures, along with other summer fishing fare.
“We wanted to preserve the opportunity for a steelhead and cutthroat fishery,” in the summer, Gross said.
By the state's reasoning, the prohibition on harvesting hatchery salmon in the Hoh River should mean that fewer people will target salmon, leading to fewer wild salmon being incidentally hooked, and thus incrementally decreasing the impact of sport fishing on the wild stock.
Still, Gross admits, “There's all kinds of ways you could skin this cat because you've got different information you can put in and all of them aren't making all that much of a difference. But we are looking at the numbers of hooked salmon, targeting salmon, and that's what we wanted to limit if we could.”
According to Gross, some bait setups used by anglers are intended strictly for targeting salmon.
“Big plugs, hearing wraps, or anchovy wraps, would be something that you don't use for steelhead,” he said.
“So our hookups on chinooks should decline drastically, which would save few fish because not many were being lost initially.
“But it would save some, and with that the tribe would agree to implement their limit on commercial fishing.”
According to Gross, the Hoh tribe's agreement to suspend its commercial netting “is key because it coincides with the peak of some of the chinook runs.”
The tribal commercial fishing cuts that Gross references began in May when the Hoh tribe reduced its netting operations down to just one day per week.
Beginning June 17, the Hoh tribe suspended its commercial fishery and drastically limited its sustenance and ceremonial fish harvest allotments.
“The tribe has a little bit bigger impact than we do,” Gross said. “They've implemented what they call a 'minimal fishery' in years past as well, but it's still more than ours.
“They want to see us make cuts if they are going to make cuts, and vice versa.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that there are no actual hatchery salmon plants in the Hoh River, meaning that any hatchery fish in the river has strayed from another system, primarily the Sol Duc.
Because there is no hatchery operation on the Hoh there is very limited data on the number of hatchery fish in the river, leading to intense disagreement on the actual number.
For its part the state claims that only a paltry number of hatchery chinook are harvested each summer in the Hoh.
Based on catch card records over the past six years, the state reports that harvest total has topped out at 36 fish and gone as low as six, with an average of 17 per spring/summer.
Kerr disagrees with the state's harvest estimate and blames the discrepancy on the inefficiency of collecting catch card data.
“A guy marks down his catch with a leaky felt pen, stuffs it in his wallet and then hopefully remembers to send it in at the end of the season, where it then sits in a box for four months before some kid tries to read it. I'm sure that's how Microsoft keeps their data,” Kerr said.
Enges agrees with his colleague that there are more hatchery salmon in the Hoh system than the state Department of Fish and Wildlife numbers indicate.
“It would be a different story if we were talking about a wild fish, but these are hatchery fish. These are our fish and we don't get to have them,” Enges said.
“We've been down here trout fishing for the last week since it opened and we have caught and released quite a few hatchery salmon.”
Enges continued, “It's very frustrating when you can keep this fish on the Sol Duc, but you can't keep the same one on the Hoh because supposedly there aren't any of them in there. It's upsetting. Like I said, there are a lot of them here and they are clipped fish, and that's a shame.”
Many guides have indicated that they would have rather seen strict selective gear regulations put in place than losing the entire fishery.
Bill Meyer, a member of the North Olympic Peninsula Sport Fishing Coalition said, “If you really wanted to protect the wild kings it seems like you would do a selective fishery all season long, which would help eliminate stray hatchery fish from the system, and mandating that chinooks be returned immediately.”
Another senior local fishing resource expressed doubts that the seasonal shutdown would accomplish its intended goal of recovering the wild stock.
“In the long term, it will probably help, but it's going to be a long, long time. I mean, shutting it down for a year, that's not going to do anything. They'd have to shut it down for 10 years, and then you still don't know. And how popular would that be? My best guess is not very popular. I sure wouldn't want to be the one putting my name on it in the newspaper, for fear you'd get hurt.”
Kerr insisted that the decision to ban the fishery rather than implement selective gear regulations was based in politics rather than science, saying that the state didn't want to make the Hoh an exclusively selective gear fishery without major concessions from the Hoh tribe in return.
“So they [the state] invented this salmon idea,” Kerr said. “They didn't have any tangibles that they wanted to give up so they came up with a new thing.”
Gross understands the sharp feelings in the community, but defended his department's decision saying, “I don't think anybody disputed that we needed to do something. For the past eight years the numbers have been declining to the point where they are at or below the minimum spawning floor for our escapement goals.”
Gross estimates that the dual cutbacks by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Hoh tribe will result in fewer than 10 percent of the wild chinook stock being impacted.
At the same time, Gross admitted that the regulations may very well be different next time around.
“We will consider [economic impact]. We should consider that, and we do,” Gross said.
“But it's not really [paramount] on a smaller scale cutback like these. The primary concern was the fish stock.”
He continued: “In the future, we could cut this differently,” by possibly allowing hatchery fish to be harvested in the early season (May) before cutting it off, or even going to the controversial selective gear rules.
“We agree the use of selective gear regulations could further reduce the sport fishery's impacts by reducing catch and release mortality, and we may consider the addition of these protective rules in the future,” read a press release penned by Gross.
Taking it even further, Gross commented over the phone that, “If the tribe were willing to cut down their fishery all summer we would do the same. We actually offered that but they turned it down. It would be the ultimate that we could do for the resource.”
But he added, “I don't think we could do that unilaterally without the tribe.”
Back in the here and now, Gross contends that hatchery fish from other rivers primarily stay in the lower reaches of the Hoh, using the cold glacial waters as a rejuvenating resting place before returning to their rivers of origin.
“Those hatchery chinook proceed back up to the Sol Duc and they are available there for harvest,” Gross said.
One thing on which all of the anglers interviewed agreed is that corrective action must be taken soon in order to remedy the failing wild chinook run on the Hoh.
“This is no surprise that this fishery has been dwindling,” Meyer said.
“In the 90s it was listed as one of the last healthy run of wild chinook on the Washington coast, and the fact that the state let it get to this point, before they take these measure against it, and they still don't take the measure that they should.
“It's kind of a bummer because there needs to be more communication between fishermen and the state out here.”
He continued: “There needs to be critical measure taken to save those fish. The Hoh wild springer run was truly a special run. The genetics there were truly unique. You hear all the time about fish larger than 40 pounds.”
Kerr put the onus on the state.
“There's a number of ways you could address this issue, a number of steps you could take, and the state chose a step, of the many options that were open to them, they chose an option that had a very limited conservation benefit and a huge impact on local fishermen and local businesses,” he said.
“It's clear that you could better manage the conservation with other choices, so why did we end up going this route?”
Kerr called back to add, “The decisions that they are making are causing guides to lose customers and entire businesses. They are costing people their livelihoods. They are going to wind up causing guys to default on their mortgages and they are certainly going to cause people to have to move away from Forks in search of other economic opportunities.
“And these guys who are killing this fishery, and I do mean killing it, they are going to get promotions. It's just really frustrating when you're sitting there and telling them that they need to conserve more fish, and they don't. Instead they do this. They don't deserve promotions.”
Jordan Nailon is a veteran outdoors writer in western Washington. He is an assistant baseball coach at Forks High School who in his spare time is a hog and vegetable farmer and beekeeper.