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Tribal Salmon Fisheries

As sovereign governments each tribe manages their own fisheries for salmon, other fin-fish and shellfish within guidelines jointly developed jointly with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Each tribe issues, and is responsible for enforcing, their own fishing regulations.

Regulations specify fishery openings, gear restrictions, non-retention rules, and other requirements for harvesting a given species in marine and/or freshwater areas. Each tribe fishes only in those marine and freshwater areas that have been legally defined by the court as their usual and accustomed area. In areas where two or more tribes operate, they issue identical regulations or develop agreements for sharing harvest.

Tribal salmon harvest consists of three categories:

• Commercial catch which is sold into the wholesale or retail markets,
• Subsistence catch for personal consumption, and
• Ceremonial catch taken for use at cultural events.

All catch is verified and recorded by the respective tribal fisheries management departments, and the data entered to a computer database jointly maintained by the tribes and WDFW.

The tribes use troll, gillnet and seine gear.

• Troll vessels operate in marine areas, and drag baited hooks or lures at the depth of the target species.
• Drift gillnets up to several hundred feet long are fished in open marine waters and the mouths of large rivers, using a hydraulic drum aboard a 25 to 35 foot vessel.
• Shorter set gillnets are fished along the shore or in rivers from a small skiff. Purse seines are fished in marine areas and require a larger vessel and usually a power skiff to deploy and retrieve.
• Beach seines, usually about 150 to 300 feet long, are deployed from shore and retrieved by hand.
• Tribal fishers also use hook and line and dipnets to harvest fish for subsistence and ceremonial purposes.

Fisheries for each species are based on management periods which encompass the migration timing peculiar to each species, in each fishing area. Puget Sound is divided into 13 marine management areas and freshwater areas in each river. The migration timing of salmon species overlaps in any given area, so planning harvest for one species must account for incidental harvest of species with overlapping timing.


Tribal fisheries targeted at chinook salmon are currently of limited scope because of the depressed status of Puget Sound stocks.

Troll fisheries operate in coastal ocean waters and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, primarily May through September, and on smaller scale, during winter months in the Strait. Gillnet fisheries for chinook operate in terminal marine and freshwater areas, targeting hatchery returns to Bellingham Bay, Tulalip Bay, and to the Green, Puyallup, Nisqually and Skokomish rivers.

Chinook are also caught incidentally in fisheries targeting sockeye, pink, and sockeye salmon.


Tribal troll fisheries for coho operate, like those for chinook, during the summer in coastal ocean areas and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Gillnet fisheries for coho occur throughout Puget Sound, primarily in September and October, targeting returns to five regions of origin: Nooksack, Samish, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, South Sound, Hood Canal, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.


Gillnet fisheries for fall chum occur in October and November throughout Puget Sound, targeting healthy wild stocks in some areas and hatchery returns in others. In recent years chum salmon comprise the largest harvest in terms of numbers or weight of fish in Puget Sound.

Returns to South Sound and Hood Canal have each varied between 500,000 to 1 million, and reflect the healthy condition of these stocks.

A lucrative market for chum roe in Asia promotes commercial interest in these fisheries. A unique winter chum stock in the Nisqually River also supports substantial harvest. Summer chum stocks in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are depressed, and have not supported directed harvest in recent years.


Pink salmon stocks in Puget Sound occur, with one exception, only in odd-numbered years.

Net fisheries are recently limited to healthy stocks in the Skagit and Snohomish rivers. However, pink abundance has increased dramatically in South Puget Sound rivers. Pink salmon have lower commercial value than other species, in part due to the very high volume of catch in British Columbia and Alaska.

Tribal purse seiners also participate in fisheries directed at pink salmon returning in odd-years to the Fraser River.


Nine tribes participate annually in fisheries targeting Fraser River sockeye in July and August in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Rosario/Georgia Straits. The Fraser fishery involves purse seines and gillnets.

Sockeye returns to Lake Washington (Cedar River) provide intermittent commercial opportunity to tribal fishers. A smaller scale harvest also occurs on the return to the Baker River (Skagit). The Quinault sockeye stock is also depressed, but intermittently provides significant commercial harvest opportunity to the Quinault Tribe.


Wild steelhead stocks are depressed throughout Puget Sound, and hatchery steelhead have also experienced much lower survival in the last fifteen years. Limited commercial harvest occurs on hatchery returns to the Skagit and Snohomish rivers; elsewhere tribal harvest in Puget Sound is limited to nominal subsistence and ceremonial harvest.

Steelhead returning to the Washington coastal rivers are currently more abundant, though tribal net harvest comprises primarily hatchery returns.