The complex story of Cascadian fisheries defies a simple narrative, but seems mostly positive—minus the El Niño and Oregon quillback mystery.
Commercial fisherfolk don’t need an article to know that Earth in the 2020s is a dynamic—some would say pretty insane—time and place, but the next fishing season is eternal.
From a macro level, how did Pacific Northwest fisheries fare in 2022? How do they look in 2023? What environmental or economic factors should fishermen from the owner-operator to seasonal deckhand keep in mind? Read on for some intel of what’s to come.
El Niño Possibility and Hypoxic Zone Considerations
“I’ve just heard the first predictions of what the ocean is going to look like off our coast, and there is a very early … prediction out of NOAA that this will be a strong El Niño year,” Dr. Caren Braby, marine resources program manager at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said.
Broadly speaking, El Niños have a negative impact on fisheries.
“El Niños are not a good outlook for us, meaning warm water and poor food conditions for forage,” Braby said. “Associated with it could be a small or perhaps major marine heatwave like the event we saw in 2014 and 2019.”
She noted, though, that it’s still early in the year and while the state realizes NOAA’s prediction might not come to pass, “it’s looking like El Niño could be characteristic of this coming year.”
“We are looking at that, but it’s still very early in the year. We are still in the position that those predications could not come to fruition, but it’s looking like El Niño could be characteristic of this coming year.”
Warm water years are notably important for albacore fishermen as the tuna follow the warm-cold water “edge,” the location of which is often abnormal during anomalous hotter seasons. The infamous 2014 warm water “blob” was a disaster for most albacore fisherman.
Other negative impacts of an El Niño year include increased biotoxins, more plankton and harmful algal blooms and decreases in vulnerable species like crab.
“[The El Niño signs are] not dire, but I’m a little on the edge of my seat about what the next year is going to look like,” Braby said.
While 2022 was broadly a positive year from an ecological standpoint for Oregon, there were significant hypoxia events off the Oregon coast.
“We had some pretty severe situations,” Braby stated. “As we have changing ocean conditions, these events will continue to change our view of what a healthy ocean is. Hypoxia is something we’re going to have to manage.”
She said she envisions a near future where predicting and monitoring hypoxic zones will be as standard as tracking ocean temperatures for a more complete view of the health of the ocean.
The Salmon Situation
“In 2022, probably the most noteworthy fishery development was a gangbusters run of sockeye returning to the Columbia River that resulted in expanded fishing (opportunities) throughout much of the river, including on the upper Columbia,” said Benjamin Anderson, communications manager of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We also saw a handful of fisheries close earlier than expected in 2022, including in several Puget Sound marine areas, in order to meet conservation goals for Chinook salmon,” Anderson said. “The lower Columbia River also saw several closures and re-openings in August and September due to concerns about Chinook returns and catch rates.”
According to Anderson, changes, aka closures, for Washington salmon fisheries largely targeted salmon and steelhead runs listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“We manage to strict conservation goals for those ESA-listed stocks and those can have a ripple effect on salmon fisheries around the state,” Anderson explained.
Of note for 2023 is the return of pink salmon that return only during odd-number years to Washington. Preliminary indications are that the returns should be like what was seen in 2021, which could be good fishing opportunity for the area.
At the time of this writing, the annual North of Falcon process—where state, tribal, and federal fishery managers confer to set salmon seasons for the year in Puget Sound, the coast and Columbia River—is still underway. The initial forecasts are usually released in late February or early March and conclude in April.
“We do have some preliminary forecasts available for spring Chinook on the Columbia River,” Anderson said. “At a high level, the run there looks similar to last year, but fisheries will be set to meet conservation objectives for ESA-listed stocks such as Snake River wild spring Chinook, which are expected to return in lower numbers than we saw in 2022.”
Oregon Quillback Down, Yellow Eye Rockfish Comeback Story
There were notable changes to the limits on quillback rockfish for the commercial and nearshore fishery. The stock assessment of quillback rockfish was less than expected. But the question remains unanswered as to the whether the surprisingly low assessment was due to an ecological concern or if new scientific methods are merely providing a more accurate view of the actual quillback rockfish population.
“Essentially, the last time quillback rockfish was assessed it was a big population, now it’s a small population,” Braby explained. “The science behind the stock assessment has changed … quillback rockfish was a big problem for California fisheries last year, and a problem for Oregon fisheries due to the changing assessment science.
“Quillback will be a restraining species for Oregon and California going forward,” she said.
While the quillback rockfish news is not ideal, Braby said that Oregon broadly is ahead of schedule for rebuilding species of fish that have been problems in the past.
“Yellow eye rockfish comes to mind, a species that was thought to be so depleted that it was really constraining a number of commercial fisheries,” Braby commented. “It [yellow eye rockfish] is rebuilding much faster due to management efforts than we thought it was going to.”
Naturally, all commercial fishermen are encouraged to closely track announcements in this era where more than 10 billion Alaskan snow crab can disappear in one year.
“We encourage everyone to check our emergency rule updates to see what rules might be in effect for a particular area or species,” Anderson said. “Overall, the outlook seems positive.”
“We don’t have any planned closures for crab, rockfish, shrimp or fish,” said Anderson. “As far as quota management, we don’t have any of those kinds of planned closures. Things are getting resolved for what’s set for the year, things look decent on that front.”
“We’re just getting to the end of the international halibut meeting in California, status quo and should have a good quote for Area 2A, Oregon, Washington and California,” he stated.
“Ocean conditions we’re trying to pay more attention to overall are El Niño, ocean acidification, temperature and oxygen,” Braby remarked. “The long-term sustainability of the fisheries and the fishing industry is dependent on us managing those changes and business anticipating them.”
She said she believes those who will be ready for tomorrow will adjust their strategies and business portfolios by looking down the road not just for next year, but beyond.
“A lot of changes are coming,” she said.
Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at norriscomer.com. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.