Regional Update: Pacific Northwest Fisheries

NOAA researchers
NOAA researchers with net-pens at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s Manchester Research Station. File photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.

Recent studies by Pacific Northwest fisheries officials note mixed conditions faced by fisheries in Washington state and Oregon, but also report an overall improved and positive outlook.

NOAA Fisheries reported declines in the U.S. fishing and seafood industry as a result of COVID-19, and some flexible regulation changes were required in 2021 in an effort to stay nimble in uncertain times.

NOAA also reported specific conditions generally associated with higher productivity for certain fisheries, resulting in a number of positive ocean indicators off the Oregon coast. These conditions have led to some favorable 2022 fishery forecasts.


There is some encouraging recent data, said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Northwest Regional Office, in a December 2021 email to Fishermen’s News.

“An interesting and favorable development that is likely to affect multiple species is that there are signs that after several years of poor ocean conditions, the outlook is positive,” Milstein said.

According to NOAA’s year-end Ocean Indicators report, an early onset of upwelling and cold salty, low-oxygen water created notably productive winter “pre-conditioning” circumstances. This resulted in the highest annual biomass of cold-water northern copepods ever observed within a 24-year timeframe, and lower than average biomass of warm-water southern copepods.

“This is an important and welcome development, and hopefully the improving conditions will stick around for a while,” Milstein said.

This could have wide implications across the ecosystem, although it’s particularly good news for salmon, he added.

Marine heatwaves (MHW) in recent years have kept the ocean too warm to be as productive as in previous years for salmon. Recent examples in 2019 and 2020 saw the second and third largest MHWs ever recorded in the northern Pacific Ocean since satellite monitoring and analysis began in 1982.

In April, another large MHW in the region started and remained relatively constant in size and location as 2021 came to a close.

F/V Winona J
Newport, Ore.-based F/V Winona J heading out for whiting or rockfish in summer 2021. Photo by Maggie Sommer.


In response to the impact of COVID-19, there were some regulation changes during 2021.

Among the more notable moves, some processing restrictions were removed for the Pacific whiting fishery to allow additional flexibility and promote safety at sea.

On Oct. 25, NOAA Fisheries extended an emergency rule to temporarily—for 180 days—allow at-sea Pacific whiting processing vessels to operate as both a mothership and a catcher-processor during the 2021 Pacific whiting fishery. They could not do so, however, on the same trip.

“In the event a processing vessel must cease or change operations resulting from, or to avoid, a COVID-19 outbreak onboard, these emergency measures will provide flexibility to allow other vessels to process catch that at-sea whiting catcher-vessels would not otherwise be able to deliver as a result,” according to the NOAA announcement.

In another change, the commercial sablefish primary season was extended from its scheduled closing date of Oct. 31 to the end of 2021.

The action came after industry members advocated for the extension at the September meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC). The request was meant to provide more opportunity for harvesters to access a significant amount of quota remaining after unusually high under-attainment.

As of mid-September, more than half of sablefish primary fishery vessels were below 50% of normal attainment levels for that time of year. The under-attainment was attributed to operational delays in the Alaska fisheries, processing system disruptions, and unforeseen delays related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Pacific Fishery Management Council has recognized, based in part on the need for emergency actions in 2021, a need for long-term modifications to some fishery regulations and has begun the process to make the sablefish primary fishery season longer and adding flexibilities in the whiting fishery to improve utilization of available Pacific whiting quotas,” Milstein explained.

Supporting the development of a Final Proposed Action to improve utilization in the Pacific whiting fishery is a priority for 2022, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Regional Administrator Barry Thom said at the council’s Nov. 16 meeting.

“We’ll be advancing and supporting at-sea whiting utilization actions,” Thom said.

Supporting their annual management measures is at the core of fisheries management, he added.

Other priorities he mentioned included adaptively managing fisheries and aquaculture for sustainability and economic competitiveness, and safeguarding protected species and propelling their recovery.


In Oregon, commercial fisheries are in good shape as a whole, with relatively stable landings and good prices, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Fishery Management Section Leader Maggie Sommer in an email to Fishermen’s News.

The favorable conditions as noted in the NOAA year-end Ocean Indicators report led to 2021 turning out to be the Oregon Coast’s second-best year in a 24-year time series (2008 ranked first).

In some cases, though, processing capacity has led to restrictions on landings by processors/buyers due to workforce, supply-chain and distribution issues, Sommer added.

Despite these challenges and the recent MHW, the 2021 commercial ocean Dungeness crabbing season opened on time on Dec. 1, for the first time since 2014.

Over the last seven years, the season start date has been delayed—in at least some parts of the Oregon coast—due to low crab meat content and/or high domoic acid levels, Sommer explained.

MHW have also been the cause of delays. “The Blob” MHW that dominated that region of the Pacific Ocean from 2014 to 2016 created harmful algal bloom and led to fishery disruptions.

Environmental conditions may often be a factor in the success of fisheries from year to year. Unexpected events such as a spike in levels of biotoxins in crab, razor clams and other shellfish (which can result from harmful algal blooms) have sometimes affected season timing and are always a possibility, Sommer said.

They don’t anticipate any major changes to commercial fisheries in 2022, Sommer said.

Albacore is a “wait-and-see” situation, added Troy Buell, ODFW Marine Resources Program leader. Salmon seasons change every year, he added, and as of press time, they’re not sure what 2022 will look like.

“We never know what’s going to happen until it does, but (we’re) not anticipating any regulatory changes to seasons,” Buell said.

There may be one change at another fishery. The PFMC scheduled an emergency webinar on Jan. 21 regarding the Southern Oregon/ Northern California Coast coho harvest control rule.

Details on the discussion and any action taken were not available at press time. The council was scheduled to consider rescinding a motion adopted in November regarding the coho harvest control rule, while reviewing the risk assessment and range of alternatives. The panel also may adopt a preferred harvest control rule and consider an amendment to the Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan, as appropriate.


Oregon’s market squid fishery has grown dramatically since 2016. A newly created industry advisory panel met for the first time on Oct. 22.

The panel of 10 members represents the commercial market squid industry, including vessel operators and processors along the West Coast. Discussion topics included net-size restrictions, rib-line specification, and vessel position monitoring requirements.

Fishing for market squid, usually a California fishery, has been good off Oregon in recent years and will likely continue in 2022. Squid fishing, which is not currently subject to a regulatory season, occurred later in 2021 than in most recent years, Sommer noted. 

Th growth of the market squid fishery has coincided with surveys showing increased populations off the Oregon coast. Although it began in Oregon in the early 1980s, catch-and- fishing efforts generally were low. In the past five years, the number of vessels has increased to 40 in some years; catch rose to more than 10 million pounds in 2020.

Another 2021 milestone in Oregon: The first-ever statewide nearshore rockfish survey was conducted.

Researchers spent about 10 weeks surveying black, blue and deacon rockfish just off the coast. What they discover could benefit commercial and recreational anglers along with the coastal communities that rely on those industries, said lead researcher Leif Rasmuson.

Results were not available at press time because researchers were still evaluating data.


As a whole, Washington offers a huge number of fisheries, and anglers in Washington can generally find opportunities to harvest fish or shellfish year-round, depending on the species they’re targeting, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ben Anderson explained in an email.

The health of most of the state’s diverse fisheries vary year-by-year depending on ocean conditions, the numbers of fish returning or other environmental or human factors.

As of press time, it was too early to forecast the 2022 seasons or the year’s regulations for most Washington fisheries. Some change annually and aren’t adopted until later in the year, Anderson explained.

But there is some preliminary forecasting available for Columbia River.

“The current forecast predicts larger returns for both spring Chinook and sockeye, and similar returns to 2020 for summer Chinook,” Anderson noted.

Columbia River fall chinook returns in 2022 should also be similar to or greater than 2021, according to the WDFW 2021 preliminary returns and 2022 outlook report.

The report also noted that the Columbia River 2021 preliminary coho jack return is about half of what was forecast (1.3 million). Preliminary returns were even less than the 2020 return, but greater than the recent five-year average.

In the 2022 expectations report published on Dec. 14, WDFW officials anticipate 2022 to have the sixth highest coho jack return since 1977.

It’s a good sign that the WDFW is considering the improved outlook as described in the NOAA Ocean Indicators report for their 2022 forecasts for salmon returns, Milstein, of NOAA, pointed out.

At this time, the state does not expect any seasons being altered as a result of COVID, Anderson said, but they will continue to follow the advice of local and state health authorities for guidance.

Many fisheries are adjusted annually based on forecasted run-size and timing, and to ensure we meet conservation objectives, Anderson said.

“So they change from year-to-year, but this is normal,” he said.

WDFW also issues emergency rule changes throughout the year as part of in-season management. The changes allow them to expand, open, restrict or close fisheries based on the latest information such as updated forecasts, actual returns or catch data.

For example, in 2021 high-catch rates around the San Juan Islands prompted an early closure of the salmon fishery there in the summer, and a record-low steelhead return on the Columbia River also led to widespread fishery changes.