Washington's salmon anglers are back. Why the delay?

The regular salmon-fishing season in Washington started late this year because a rough year for salmon led to testy negotiations between the state and co-managing tribes.

Alan Berner/The Seattle Times/AP/File
Coho salmon return to Issaquah Creek during the annual fall migration in Issaquah, Wash., on Oct. 4, 2012. The regular salmon-fishing season in Washington started late this year because of difficult negotiations between the state and local tribes.

Washington's salmon anglers were finally able to cast on Friday, but not before two months of delay resurrected decades-old conflict between the state and native American tribes.

Salmon fisheries throughout inland Washington re-opened to commercial and recreational fishing after the state and tribes returned to the negotiating table to determine the balance between fishing interests and species protection. The two groups then sought a federal permit for the second time, Jeffrey Mayor reported for the News Tribune. Although the compromise laid down complex restrictions for time and place, anglers are satisfied to be back on the water.

"I’m planning to be here at 4 in the morning,” Jim Dickinson, who runs a Washington boat ramp, told the News Tribune on Friday, “because the fishermen will be chomping at the bit to get out there.”

This year proved a difficult one for the fish in Washington's lakes and rivers, sparking conflict in this spring's round of fishing rights negotiations. Mandated by a 1974 treaty, the normally routine talks broke down in April because local tribes demanded greater protections for the salmon, Mark Yuasa reported for the Seattle Times.

The protracted disagreement delayed the fishing season by two months and dredged up a decades-old conflict between the state's fishermen and the resource rights of native American tribes. The debate was further complicated by intervention from the federal government, which provides limited protections for the salmon through the Endangered Species Act and holds a treaty with the local tribes.

These talks have occurred each spring for the last three decades following a federal mandate that the state and tribes co-manage the resource. This was the first time negotiations extended this far into the summer.

The dispute came after fisheries managers expressed concerns for the health of coho salmon this year. A "blob" of warm water in the ocean altered the ocean ecosystem and reduced the number of fish. By early March, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife predicted a run of 256,000 Puget Sound coho salmon - just one-third that of 2015.

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” John Long, the department's policy lead for salmon fisheries, said in a press release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

Local tribes were even more emphatic about the need for fishing restrictions, and after talks broke down in April, the tribes applied for and received a separate fishing permit under the Endangered Species Act.

"We have argued on the side of conservation and caution this year, and for the tribes that means closing fisheries,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, in a press release. “These fisheries closures are the direct consequence of the state of Washington allowing the destruction of salmon habitat for decades.”

When the tribes began fishing, they faced a backlash from angler groups who said the 32-year-old negotiations process had slanted to the tribes' favor in recent years.

"Moving forward it is clear that the co-management process is broken and in need of common sense reforms that promote conservation, transparency, and an equitable sharing of the harvest consistent with the Boldt Decision,” said Nello Picinich, executive director of Washington's Coastal Conservation Association, which organized a protest of 200 anglers, according to press release.

With anglers groups continuing to protest while tribes exercised their fishing rights, all sides returned to the negotiating table, By late May, the parties had thrashed out detailed fishing restrictions for this fall, paving the way for Washington's $100 million recreational fishing business to return to casting their lures.

“I’m not thrilled about this fall and winter closure, but at least we’ll stay open through the summer,” Art Tachell, a longtime employee at the Point Defiance Boathouse, told the News Tribune.

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