Bellingham fishing derby forced to evolve with increasing shortage of salmon

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Three days of derby all come down to this -- the weigh in.

Empty trailers sat ready and waiting in a packed parking lot at Squalicum Harbor Marina for hundreds of boaters to return Sunday after three days of fishing.

Crab season officially opened up this weekend and anglers -- marked by green flags -- docked in Bellingham Bay to deliver their most prized possession, hoping to weigh in the catch of the derby.

Salmon season officially opened July 1.

“I've been doing it now for ten, twelve years,” said Kevin Walters, a fisherman from Lynden who drove down for the event. “It’s just a yearly fun opener to summer salmon.”

But as the years have gone by something has changed.

“The catch counts have gotten smaller. The fish have kind of gotten smaller,” said Walters.

As the salmon populations decline in the Puget Sound, restrictions have changed on the catch anglers can keep.

“We can keep only hatchery fish now. Up until a couple of years ago we could keep hatchery or native, so it makes it a little more of a struggle for bigger fish,” said Rod Holmes, a local fisherman from Bellingham.

Anglers say the smaller fish make it harder to weigh in a derby winner.

“One of our buddies hooked one that was over 23 (pounds) and he had to let it go because it was a native,” said Holmes.

Derby organizers say participation is finally bouncing back after restrictions led to several slow years.

“(There’s) less opportunity. We have less participation, you know, it kind of goes in hand,” said Mark Riedesel, President of the Bellingham Puget Sound Anglers.

Riedesel says it still comes down to supply.

“It’s impacted it every year we have a salmon derby,” said Riedesel. “Whereas ten years ago when it started it was like, ‘Oh we can do a salmon derby any time. I mean this will happen every year, this is great,’ and in the last five years especially, every year we get to a point where we’re planning our salmon derby and we always have this question of ‘Is there going to be a season allowed?’ so the declining population has impacted it in that regard.”

Riedesel suspects the added limitations could be a contributor to few younger anglers on the water.

The derby does have a small economic boost.

“The money it brings into the community, not only in tackle and fuel, but to the resorts or to the marinas out there. It’s a good revenue,” said Bellingham resident Rod Holmes, who participated in the derby.

But mainly it’s designed as a family friendly event, that’s catered to kids.

“It’s just really fun to reel them in and be out on the boat,” said eleven year old Alex Daies, who reeled in a 16 pound salmon and won the derby’s kids division.

Organizers like Riedesel hope that catching a salmon and walking away with a prize will get them hooked on saving the species in the long run.