ILWACO - The sport fishery for salmon began Sunday off the southern coast of Washington and the northern coast of Oregon, where the first anglers of the season cast off a full month earlier than usual.
This year's early start gives ocean anglers an opportunity to catch hatchery Chinook salmon before the bulk of the diminished coho run arrives off the coast, said Doug Milward, ocean salmon manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The early Chinook opening is a key conservation strategy in a year when fishery managers are predicting low returns of coho salmon throughout the West Coast.
Unlike California, where the collapse of the Sacramento River Chinook run prompted a complete closure of the ocean fishery, hatchery Chinook are returning to the Columbia River in sufficient numbers to support a fishery off the Washington and northern Oregon coasts.
In all, up to 20,000 Chinook salmon - up from 16,500 last year - will be available for harvest by sportfishers in Washington's coastal waters.
However, this year's 20,350 catch quota for coho salmon will be the lowest in a decade and will likely be a significant constraint on the Chinook fishery, Milward said. In contrast, last year's coho quota was 117,500 fish.
"We could actually have a pretty good Chinook fishery in June," Milward said. "There will also be a season in July, but there's a good chance we'll have to close the fishery earlier than in previous years to meet conservation goals for coho salmon."
Under this year's rules, anglers are limited to one Chinook salmon per day through June 28. All other salmon species - including coho - must be released during that period.
Starting June 29, the daily limit will increase to two salmon per day, including one Chinook. As in past years, anglers may retain fin-clipped hatchery coho, but must release any unmarked wild coho they intercept.
"Anglers who want to participate in this year's fishery off the Washington coast should plan to go early," said Phil Anderson, WDFW deputy director, "because we're likely to reach the limited catch quotas earlier than usual."
The low coho quota reflects a forecast of poor coho returns to the Columbia River. According to preseason projections, only about 196,000 coho are predicted to return to the Columbia this year, compared to an actual return of 462,000 in 2007.
Fishery managers have attributed the low coho returns to poor ocean conditions in 2005 and 2006.
In Washington, salmon fishing in Marine Area 1, off the coast of Ilwaco, is open seven days a week. Marine Area 2, off Westport, also opened Sunday, but fishing is limited to Sundays through Thursdays.
Additional fishing regulations, including minimum size limits and area catch guidelines are described in WDFW's Fishing in Washington rules pamphlet, available online at (wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regs_seasons.html)