Mark-Selective Chinook Fishery in Puget Sound

Puget Sound is a large inland marine water body in Washington State that supports runs of five Pacific salmon, steelhead, and multiple marine fish species. Chinook salmon are a very popular recreational and (in the past) commercial species in Puget Sound. To support the naturally spawning Chinook salmon runs, numerous hatcheries were built in throughout the Pacific coast area.

As a result of the Endangered Species Act, the Chinook salmon fisheries were very restricted or completely closed to protect wild (“naturally spawning”) fish. This included closure for all (both hatchery and wild) Chinook salmon.

Through various planning efforts by sports fishermen, Native American tribes, Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (WDFW) and others, a mark-selective approach for providing some fishing opportunities for Chinook salmon was developed. The approach involved marking of hatchery fish by removal of the adipose fin (a small fin near the tail) to identify hatchery fish from wild ones. Once removed, the fin does not normally regrow, and therefore, if caught by a fisherman, the fish can be identified as a hatchery fish and retained (if it meets other restrictions such as size limit, season, etc.). Wild fish (with the adipose fin) can then be readily identified and released. In addition, a certain percentage of hatchery fish may have a small “coded-wire tag” inserted into their heads. This provides additional information about the fish such as which hatchery it was reared in. WDFW has also added rules that wild salmon cannot be brought aboard a vessel (i.e., inside the gunwale) to assist in releasing the wild fish unharmed.

Each year, the WDFW and Native American tribes (co-managers of the fisheries in Washington State) set quotas on the number of marked Chinook salmon that may be taken in Puget Sound (which is divided into several subareas to assist in management for various runs of Chinook salmon. For example, one subarea may be dominated by a run to a specific hatchery. Depending on the projections for adult returns to that hatchery, a quota for take is established and considered in the overall quota for that subarea).

The quotas for each subarea are monitored through dockside sampling. They are also supported by WDFW staff that fish for Chinook salmon with methods similar to those used by private and charter sport fishing groups. This “on the water” sampling provides key information about take, wild/hatchery fish ratios, and fishing effort. The information is used to support the overall development of quotas.

Seasons and quotas are set early in the year so that some planning by fishermen (e.g., vacations, days off, etc.) can be made. However, if the quota is reached early, the season may be closed early.

Overall, the mark-selective approach has re-opened fishing opportunities. These have been very popular with fishermen, as noted by the large groups that are currently observed on the water. This has also helped support economically important aspects such as charter fishing, tackle shops, boat sales, etc.

The WDFW has provided very detailed information about the mark-selective Chinook salmon fishery in Puget Sound (and elsewhere in Washington State) in multiple publications and press releases (see These publications provide information on the overall program, sampling techniques, quota development, and other pertinent aspects of the mark-selective approach.

Several issues have arisen about the approach, which are of interest. These include costs associated with marking millions of hatchery fish and monitoring programs, incomplete or non-marking of hatchery fish, mortality associated with capture and release of wild fish, and other aspects of the program. However, overall, this approach has helped to provide fishing opportunities that would not be possible under the no-take restrictions that were originally imposed by the Endangered Species Act.

Hatchery Chinook salmon

Hatchery Chinook salmon taken in a Puget Sound mark-selective fishery. Photo by the author.