Thirty Thousand Feet, Episode 2: Robin Ehlke on salmon management

Robin Ehlke talks salmon (May 12, 2021)


Jennifer: Hi everyone, and welcome to Thirty Thousand Feet, the new Pacific Fishery Management Council podcast. I’m Jennifer Gilden, your host today. Today, on our second episode of this podcast, we’re talking to Robin Ehlke, who’s the staff officer for salmon for the Council, and we’re gonna be talking to her about how salmon are managed by the Council and about the 2021 salmon season. So, Robin, can you tell me about the salmon seasons this year and how they’re different from last year?

Robin: Sure, Jennifer. Probably the first thing to remember is every salmon season is different from the year before, and you can always expect a change from year to year. It’s usually driven by how abundant one salmon stock might be in one year, you know, compared to the next, and how all of the different salmon stocks are doing, as a combination. Some of the salmon in the north might be doing better than some of the salmon in the south, but typically the salmon seasons will change every year and you never really know which one is going to pop up and be the problem child, if you will.

When you think of it big picture, we have a lot of salmon out there, a lot of different stocks of salmon, and almost every one of them has some kind of limit or constraint and something that tells the Council how to manage them: be it ESA or international agreements or tribal agreements. There’s a lot of boxes the Council has to stay in as they manage their fisheries, and all of that’s driven by conservation. Conservation is always job one, and as we put forward the conservation objectives and goals to the forecasts of salmon that we get every year, that tells us what kind of fisheries you might be able to have in any given area. Then once we’ve crunched the numbers and decided how many fish there are left that are harvestable, then we ask the sport and commercial fishermen to help structure their fisheries for that year, and of course we try to do that in a way that provides the most opportunity for each of the fishing sectors while conserving those important salmon stocks.

So I think that’s one of the greatest things about the Council — it really does involve the stakeholders, the people that are actually out there fishing. The commercial fishermen might say “I got this many fish to catch and it’s more cost effective for me to go out and catch all my fish in May, and then I can go on and do other fishing,” and a sport fisherman might say “I like to just be out on the water, and I just want the opportunity to fish, and maybe I’ll only fish three days a week, so that I can do that.” Whatever is important to them is how we structure these fisheries.

It’s a bit of a dance to get all of those things to jive and have it fit in the boxes that we need to fit in, and it takes some negotiation and cooperation between the different sectors as well, the tribal and sport and commercial fishermen. Maybe each one of them would shave a day off so that each one could have a little bit more of a certain type of fishery. It takes a lot of work on everybody’s part, but for me, I think the greatest thing is that we’re not telling the fishermen what they have to do, they’re telling us what ideal looks like. And if we can get it to fit in that box, then we do. That’s why it’s a process, and it takes days to turn the dials, if you will, to get everything to fit. 

Jennifer: So I know the process of setting salmon seasons north of Cape Falcon can be pretty complicated. Can you talk about how that with this year?

Robin: So “North of Falcon” is a geographic area in northern Oregon; there’s Cape Falcon, and kind of because of where the salmon stocks seem to be, we’ve made this line North of Falcon and South of Falcon. The tribes and the state of Washington are the co-managers of fisheries North of Falcon and certainly in the state of Washington, and they have agreements to where they will negotiate and decide what the limits are for some of their stocks.

There’s some stocks that were quite low this year, and that’s what made it really complicated. When you’re trying to divvy up and conserve a small amount of fish to meet the objectives of all the stakeholders, it just makes it really complicated, and that’s when the negotiations that I talked about earlier are so critical. It’s not easy. It’s serious business, in a sense, when we’re talking about conserving stocks of fish that are in a very low category of abundance-wise, making sure that everybody agrees the best way to handle that and structure their fisheries so that we can ensure we have those fish for future generations.

Jennifer: So tell me about coho. Were coho numbers up this year?

Robin: The coho numbers are up for the Columbia River coho, and there are a lot of different coho stocks. Some of them are in Puget Sound, some of them return to other coastal waters in Washington, and a good portion of them return to the Columbia River. And the survival of the fish as they are outmigrating as smolts is different for each river, and so how well they survive and then make it to adults to return is different. It’s not all across the board. And so for whatever reason the Columbia River coho fared pretty well in their survival, and so we’re going to have a good number of adults return. But that isn’t the case for every stream and river along the coast of Washington and in Puget Sound. That kind of goes back to trying to structure a fishery that meets all of the needs.

Usually the weakest stock is the one that you address, and so those fisheries that aren’t necessarily harvesting a lot of the Columbia River coho might have a higher impact on some of the lower abundant coho, but if there is a lot of coho from the Columbia River in the in the catch, then it kinda buffers them a bit, so it gets complicated really quick.

Jennifer: And what’s going on with the southern Oregon and northern California coho?

Robin: Yeah, we call those the SONCC coho, southern Oregon northern California coast coho. Those are pretty much represented by the coho stocks that are south of Falcon. We don’t know everything about every fish stock, that’s for sure, and when we can’t know everything, then a lot of times in fisheries management you’ll use a surrogate for how well that stock is doing. So if out in the ocean the hatchery fish have done well, you would assume that the natural fish would do equally as well, and so we use that for a number of stocks in salmon, and again in other fisheries. And for the SONCC coho, we’re looking at the exploitation rate that well we’ve been using in past years. We’ve been using it for a while. And the Council asked a small work group to take a look at that exploitation rate and do some analysis to ask if that number, that exploitation rate, that number fish that you’re allowed to take from that stock, is still appropriate. Can it be higher? Should it be lower? Or is it Goldilocks—is it just right? And so that’s the work of the SONCC Coho Workgroup right now.

Jennifer: Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on with Klamath salmon?

Robin: Yeah, so Klamath river fall Chinook is one of the one of the two main stocks south of Falcon, and in California fisheries. Sacramento River fall Chinook is the other main stock there. Both of those stocks, Sacramento and Klamath, were classified as overfished in 2018 and the Council adopted rebuilding plans for them. The Sacramento stock is doing fairly well. In fact, this year they were reported to have overcome, if you will, the classification of “overfished,” and they appear to be back on track. That’s not true for the Klamath fall chinook. They remain in an overfished category, and the forecast for this year was again a pretty low forecast, so we’ve put in extra measures this year for Klamath that will allow some fishing, what we call de minimus fishing, so that we can have access to that healthier Sacramento stock. But again, the numbers are very low, and just designed to provide opportunity to harvest those more healthy stocks.

Jennifer: All right, thanks. And what else is going on in the Council process related to salmon?

Robin: Well, there were a couple amendments to the Salmon Fishery Management Plan, and they were kind of back-to-back, so we have Amendment 20 and Amendment 21 going on. Amendment 20 covered what was essentially a small change in two places. One of the changes was making the salmon start date for the season May 16 instead of May 1. And that just gave NMFS a little bit of extra time to get their rules through the regulation process, which takes a lot of time and is on a fast pace as it was. And the other part of Amendment 20 was moving a salmon management boundary five miles north, from Horse Mountain north five miles, the southern border of the KMZ. Both of those were fairly simple changes in concept, but there is a process that we go through to make sure that we do all of our analyses, and the good news is we got all of that work done and I think Amendment 20 has passed the final hurdle of the regulation process, so we’ll be updating the salmon FMP with that information. 

Jennifer: So what was the thinking behind moving that line at Horse Mountain?

Robin: That was brought to us by one of the stakeholders, one of the local fishermen around Horse Mountain. It was a very hard line for them to fish in, and they thought if they moved it a little bit closer to Eureka, then the fishermen would actually travel back to the port of Eureka to land their fish, which would be an economic improvement for that port. And apparently the structure of the ocean floor there, there’s an underwater canyon, and trying to make a hard turn, the currents and everything where they had the line—they’re like “if I could just maneuver my boat a little bit more north to make a U turn,” if you will, to stay in the area, they thought that it would be much safer.

That area is known for its high winds and, as in all cases obviously, you need to be a good captain and understand your ocean environment. It didn’t have any impacts on the fish stocks one way or the other, and it was a potential economic benefit, and there were some safety issues that could be avoided potentially by moving it.

Jennifer: Interesting.

Robin: Yeah. And then the second amendment that the Council adopted was Amendment 21, and that focuses on management measures designed for southern resident killer whales. Essentially the Council is putting in the salmon fishery management plan management measures to follow when the salmon abundance is forecasted to be below a certain amount, and then it will trigger a list of additional management actions that will be put in place during that year when the abundance is below the trigger point. So the Council did their work and adopted that measure, and it’s in NMFS’s hands right now going down the regulation pathway. I don’t think it’ll be too much longer before that process is complete, but those are two ongoing topics—that one just now completing and the other one near completion. 

Jennifer: All right, well thanks so much for talking to us, Robin.

Robin: Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity. Thanks, Jennifer. We’ll talk to you later.

Jennifer: And thanks everyone for listening. If you need more information, please go to our website And check out our other podcast this month talking to Kerry Griffin about coastal pelagic species. You can email at us at