Salmon fans, coastal towns brace for decision on fishing season

WESTPORT, Wash. -- On a recent morning in Westport, Butch Henry sat by himself in a normally crowded diner.

Windy weather kept fishermen grounded that morning but he worries the empty diner, and empty streets around town could become the norm if the salmon season is cut back or even cancelled.

“Westport is known as the salmon capital of the world,” said Henry. “The people of this town rely on that salmon season every year.”

Henry is a commercial fisherman. His salmon haul makes it to your grocery store or favorite restaurant. He’s watching closely as regional managers decide what to do about a struggling coho population. The state forecast for coastal coho and Puget Sound stocks is weak.

Scientists are blaming the "blob," what they’ve termed an area of the Pacific where the water is 3 to 4 degrees warmer. It affects young salmon’s food chain.

So state regulators are looking at three options to boost the coho population. Two of the options will cut back on the fishing season, but the third is a total closure of any fishing this salmon season.

“It’s very concerning,” said Rhonda McBee, owner of a local motel in Westport. She relies on the tourists who come to Westport to charter boats and catch their own salmon.

“You need some volume,” said McBee. “You get your volume from salmon fishing. That’s what it is.”

The salmon industry typically brings in around $6 million a year to Westport, and any decision affects just about every person and business.

“Hopefully it’s not a total disaster,” said Larry Geise, owner of Deep Sea Charters. Geise runs a fleet of boats and was just getting started in the business in 1994, the last time the state closed the salmon season.

“I thought, what in the world did I get into,” said Geise. “I’m optimistic that this year, we’re going to come to some type of agreement.”

It’s a nervous time in Westport, but Butch Henry says the final decision could affect everyone in our state..

He said, depending on the decision by regional managers, “the price could get really high for salmon, where people can’t afford it.”

If the season is cancelled, he believes salmon prices may eventually double what they are now.

So he is hoping regulators lean toward a shortened season, so he can salvage at least some time away from the diner and get back out on the water.

“It’s not what we want of course," said Henry. "But anything would be better than nothing.”