Forecasts Show Another Year of Low Salmon Returns, Points Toward 2021 Season Similar to 2020


Current salmon forecasts indicate 2021 sport and commercial fishing opportunities will be similar to those set last year for Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.

"Washington salmon seasons are likely to once again be limited by low returns with a few potentially bright spots in 2021," said a statement from Fish and Wildlife Friday.

Willapa Bay numbers are up slightly, while Grays Harbor numbers are down, and most coastal rivers are also expected to see declines, according to the forecast. Poor expected returns of coho to coastal rivers such as the Queets could limit ocean fishing opportunities in spite of the expected strong return of coho to the Columbia River. That's because management decisions are made in part to protect the weakest stocks.

Phil Anderson of Westport is a past state Fish and Wildlife Director, and current member of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC). He offered some insight on the latest forecast.

"In more recent years the Chinook in Grays Harbor have been doing better, and so we've been making our escapement goals I think in three out of the last five years," said Anderson. "For the most part, Chinook stocks along the coast and in the Columbia River are doing as well or slightly better than last year so it's probably fair to assume Chinook are following a similar trend" in Grays Harbor.

The Grays Harbor coho hatchery forecast is down about 20% or so from last year, and the natural fish are down "just a little bit," so he expects the opportunity for coho to "be very similar to last year."

In Willapa Bay, the Chinook forecast is up slightly over 2020, "So I would anticipate very similar types of seasons in Willapa Bay and the rivers and tributaries that we had last year relative to Chinook," said Anderson. "When I look at the coho forecast for Willapa Bay, it's up a little bit also, about 15% over last year, so I would expect to see similar types of salmon fishing opportunity for commercial and recreational fisheries for those two stocks."

For ocean fisheries, "We have on the coho side of the ledger some really strong forecast Columbia River hatchery stock, but on the other side of the spectrum we have some natural coho stocks along the coast that are very weak," which could limit fishing, said Anderson.

The Fish and Wildlife release said there were nearly 1.6 million early and late Columbia River coho projected for this year's ocean and Columbia River fisheries, a big increase from last year's return of about 363,000 fish. However, poor returns on the Queets River in particular could limit opportunities.

Anderson said the total forecast is for 3,900 coho to return to the Queets in 2021; the minimum escapement goal is 5,800.

"So we're well below our floor there in terms of our escapement objectives, and with those dynamics of having a very strong run in the Columbia and some weak runs for natural coastal stocks, the situation in the ocean is challenging for the managers," said Anderson. "Of course we had very restrictive coho quotas last year in the ocean."

For the 2021 season, "I'm expecting somewhat better quotas," said Anderson, but fishing could also be restricted "because of the status of those natural coho stock along the coast."

Despite the big number of coho in the lower Columbia, fishery managers will set seasons carefully in order to not over-impact other limiting stocks, and will adjust fisheries as necessary, according to Kyle Adicks, Fish and Wildlife intergovernmental salmon manager.

"All of our forecasting indicates a strong coho return to the Columbia, but a lot can change between now and when fish start to arrive, including out in the ocean," Adicks said. "We'll be keeping a close eye throughout this year's salmon season setting process on stocks of low abundance."

"If every salmon run across the state was healthy, our jobs would be easy," said state Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind. "But the unfortunate truth is that some stocks just won't be able to support fisheries, and are likely to impact fisheries even for healthier runs. We'll work hard alongside the co-managers to stay within our shared conservation goals while still offering chances to get out and fish this year whenever possible."

In terms of ocean fishing for Chinook, quotas depend on the health of hatchery stocks in two locations at or below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, said Anderson, both of which are looking a little better than last year. The Fish and Wildlife statement said about 73,100 hatchery Chinook are expected to return to the lower Columbia River this year, similar to last year's return, adding the 2020 return came in above forecast, but still only about 85% of the 10-year average.

"In general I'm thinking Chinook quotas in the ocean to be somewhat similar to last year, and on the coho side, understanding that last year we had near record low coho quotas, we might see a little bit of improvement because of the strength of the hatchery return in the lower Columbia," said Anderson.

He warns again, however, that the weak condition of coastal coho stocks, particularly those on the north coast, can negatively impact overall quotas.

Anderson stresses that these are all preliminary numbers, and his current interpretation of them. Nothing is set in stone until the North of Falcon salmon season process is complete and seasons are established in April.

As the statement from Fish and Wildlife pointed out, these forecasts are cooperatively developed by Fish and Wildlife and its co-managers and "mark the jumping-off point for the annual North of Falcon process to shape Washington's salmon fishing seasons." The forecasts are based on scientific modeling and a variety of data including environmental indicators such as ocean conditions, numbers of juvenile salmon that migrated to marine waters, and numbers of adult salmon that returned in past years.

Information about the salmon season-setting process, including public meeting schedules and materials, are available online at There you will find information on upcoming public meetings and where to submit public comments, as well as preseason forecasts.

The PFMC is expected to adopt final ocean fishing seasons and regional harvest levels for the western seaboard at a virtual meeting spanning April 6-9 and 12-15. State and tribal co-managers will set a tentative 2021 salmon fisheries package for Washington's inside waters.