WILLAPA BAY — An unexpectedly strong coho salmon return in the Willapa has fishery managers and biologists reassessing run size and potentially considering more commercial and recreational fishing opportunities in the days ahead as more data is collected.

In a rare occurrence, increased recreational salmon retention limits went into effect Saturday morning on several Willapa Bay waterways as a result of the predicted strong run. Willapa’s commercial gillnetters are hoping to get more fishing days this fall after early limits to avoid impacts on scarcer Chinook.

Rare, increased opportunities

Increasing salmon opportunities mid-season for recreational and commercial fisheries aren’t typical on Willapa Bay and its tributaries — particularly on streams closed in past years due to low salmon returns.

“Here in the Willapa, it’s not often that we open the regulation,” said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Willapa Fishery biologist Barbara McClellan while monitoring the commercial gillnet harvest on Oct. 5 at the Port of Peninsula in Nahcotta.

“A lot of times, we don’t have enough indication either from the commercial fishery or our spawning ground surveys or hatcheries to actually say we have something bigger to open it,” she said. “We try to error on the side of caution…. We haven’t made escapement with coho in four of the last five years, so we’ve closed fisheries both recreational and commercial to try to get the coho back to the river, so we can have some natural spawning.”

While coho have struggled on some Willapa waterways in recent years, the return has been exceptional so far this fall in others.

“We seem to have a larger run of coho this year, which is why they [gillnetters] are getting a day or two extra. We also just opened the freshwater systems [on Saturday] to a 1-to 3-fish bag limit, with one wild coho — which up until this point, wild coho has been closed,” McClellan said.

Some rivers such as the North River, Bear River and Smith Creek were previously closed to salmon fishing, but have since opened to limited retention.

“We closed them because we had a low preseason forecast, so there wasn’t enough fish to go around,” McClellan said. “With those three systems, they only have natural fish, they have no hatchery plants, so basically you would be fishing on hatchery strays and natural fish and we didn’t want them doing that, so we closed it to salmon. The systems we have hatcheries on were open, but as of Saturday we’ve opened the three systems that were closed to one fish, so you can have a natural coho [but not Chinook]. The three hatchery systems, two went up to a three-fish bag. One went up to a one-fish bag. It’s a little expansion of the regulations. The commercial guys got one extra day last week and one extra day this week to try and get some of the coho that we think are coming back bigger.”

Hatcheries along the Nemah and Naselle rivers have been packed with coho, which has caused some congestion.

“The hatcheries have a lot of coho right now too, which is really good, sort of,” McClellan said, “At least they’re getting into the river for spawning, but right now coho don’t generally spawn. We get mostly Chinook right now, and then we’ll move into coho. So right now the hatcheries are inundated with coho and they’re trying to spawn Chinook. They have to get rid of the coho first in order to find the Chinook who are ready to spawn. We’ve got a bigger brood year coming out of Naselle right now of 5 million. We need almost 4,000 fish, a little over 1,800 females and 1,800 males, to make 5 million eggs. Nemah has 3.3 million and Willapa/Forks Creek has 400,000 Chinook.”

Coho rush coastwide

Commercial fishermen are often the canary in the coalmine when it comes to reporting what’s occurring offshore. The first signs of a bigger-than-expected coho salmon run began showing up on the Port of Peninsula docks a couple weeks ago.

“We had a really big day about two weeks ago, each gillnet boat had 200 to 300 coho if not more,” McClellan said. “It’s good to see there’s more coho, that’s a good sign.”

The initial enormous hauls made fishery biologists reconsider how big the actual run was.

“We created a model based on the commercial fishery and we look at their catch-per-unit effort and try to come up with a new run size. It’s really hard to do in season because things are always moving and shifting. The model does better with more data. In the beginning it was spitting out some obnoxious number, but we only had one data point. As we got through the weeks we started filtering more data into it and now the regression that goes with it is tighter and tighter. Our measure of how well it’s doing out of 100 is in the 70s, so it’s really good,” McClellan said.

“We’re looking at something like 40,000 to 50,000 with just natural coho and close to 100,000 hatchery coho. We didn’t predict anything like that,” she said.

The bigger-than-expected salmon runs isn’t contained to Pacific County, but across Oregon and Washinton.

“It was like that coastwide. Everything coastwide was low on coho and I know Columbia River and one or two rivers up the coast have upgraded their forecast,” McClellan said.

The increase run could allow fishery managers to consider adding more fishing opportunities in the coming weeks and months, as more data is collected.

“I would hope that the agency would be more proactive instead of just always closing, and make sure they open as well when indications show that you have more than you think you had,” McClellan said.

“Hopefully, they’re able to get a couple more days out of it here,” she said. “The last area that fishes is scheduled through the October 15th, then we close for chum. Right now we don’t have any other fisheries scheduled, usually they get some time in November with a late run of coho, but because we had a low forecast we didn’t schedule any November time. I would imagine as we get through October, we’ll get all the data through the 15th, and then we’ll be able to check spawning ground surveys and hatchery information and see where we are. I would imagine we would look at opening November to some, maybe one or two days here and there. We’ll see what the model spits out and see if it’s holding as far as a bigger run size. Coho have a tendency to come in with nothing behind them, where an entire run can come in a week or two. We want to make sure there’s still more fish coming in.”

Not all salmon are equal

Chinook salmon are the most valuable followed by coho and chum salmon when it comes to the market hierarchy of salmon, largely determined by the amount of fat in the flesh, which improves taste and texture.

The salmon typically arrive at different times to spawn, but this time of the year it’s not uncommon to catch all three species in the same day.

“The males chums typically show up first in the bay. We’re early. Usually the chum window on the Willapa is after the 15th [of October]. The bulk of the females will come in between the 15th and the first week of November. Then we’ll have the rest of the run in the river,” McClellan said.

“This part of the season we always get the random bunch that come in a little early, but this is nothing compared to what will come in if these guys are fishing at the end of October,” she said. “They don’t typically fish the last two weeks because, once we switch to more females, we need them to get to the spawning grounds. So we don’t let them fish at the end of October. This commercial fishery will fish until the 15th, and then we’ll stop to let the females get through to the spawning grounds.”

Chum are typically targeted more by commercial gillnetters than recreational fishermen.

“Usually, the recreational freshwater folks who are fishing in the river don’t want chum, because by the time they get them they will be much darker. They will be super black and they get really disgusting when they get to the river, so nobody wants them by then,” McClellan said.

Female chum are more valuable to commercial fishermen than male chum due to their eggs, which fetch a high price on foreign markets.

“The buyer will strip them for eggs and sell 5-gallon buckets,” McClellan said. “They put about 10 female skeins per bucket. They buy the chum salmon for 60 cents a pound, but will sell the bucket for a couple hundred or a thousand dollars. They ship them off to places like Japan and China where they eat a lot of sushi. The bodies will be sent off to the Midwest, where they don’t have salmon and don’t know the difference. The rest of them go to a cat food place in Aberdeen. It’s a lot of moving pieces.”

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