Doug Hanada
Tengu Club fishers angle for blackmouth in Elliott Bay

Few people would consider launching a boat into Seattle’s Elliott Bay on a winter morning. It’s cold, dark, and more often than not, wet. But the steadfast members of Seattle’s Tengu Club, a Japanese American fishing club that held its first annual salmon derby in 1946, can reliably be found doing just that.

In the 85 years since it was founded, participants have gathered on the shores of West Seattle each winter to reconnect and fish for resident Puget Sound Chinook salmon, also known as blackmouth because of their dark-colored gums. Over the course of the season, fishers compete to catch the largest salmon, vying for glory and a pot of prize money.

When he first read about the Tengu Derby in the Seattle Times over a decade ago, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS) Professor Thomas Quinn’s interest was piqued. With over 70 years of meticulously kept records, the derby presented an unexpected and exciting opportunity to gain insight into Puget Sound’s resident salmon population.

As they dug into the data, Quinn and his collaborators — James Losee (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife), Mark Scheuerell (USGS, SAFS), and Doug Hanada (Tengu Club) — were surprised to find previously undocumented trends in blackmouth body size that differed from existing data on the more typical Chinook salmon that leave Puget Sound and feed along the Pacific Ocean coast.

A fishing club’s legacy

During World War II, the Japanese American members of the Tengu Club were forced into internment camps by the U.S. government. When they finally returned home, existing salmon derbies, made up of primarily white participants, denied them entrance. So in 1946, Tengu Club members started their own derby open to all nationalities, making it one of the longest continuously running derbies in the country.

Participants use a relatively simple fishing method called “mooching,” which was invented by Japanese fishers in the early 1900s here in Seattle. “They couldn’t really afford tackle so they would go out and jig up their own herring, which was free, and then put that on a hook or cut the head off and angle it so that it would spin in the water like a top,” Tengu Club President Doug Hanada explained. A wildly successful method, mooching was named because non-Japanese fishers — probably including some who had denied Tengu members entrance into their own derbies — were regularly out-fished, and would sidle up to Tengu boats to “mooch” herring.

Doug Hanada holding a blackmouth salmon
Doug Hanada
Tengu Club president Doug Hanada shows off his 11lb 9oz blackmouth in 2012

“A small piece of the puzzle”

The Tengu Derby’s records revealed an overall decline in blackmouth body size from 1946 until about 1980, then a subsequent increase in size until 1990, followed by a second period of decline to the present. The recent declining trend aligns with research in other areas, but the changes in the derby fish differed from those of Puget Sound as a whole.

Unlike their relatives that migrate all the way to the Pacific Ocean, blackmouth spend most of their adult lives within Puget Sound. These results imply that there is something unique going on in their ecosystem, where resident Chinook may experience different ecological conditions than their counterparts in the Pacific.

“It’s a small piece of the puzzle,” said Quinn, who has spent much of his career developing scientific knowledge around why and where salmon migrate, what influences their survival, and how conservation efforts can successfully maintain their dwindling populations. Although the specific causes of the change in blackmouth size remain uncertain, the results presented in the paper represent a unique and valuable contribution to existing science, specifically in regards to our understanding of the salmon that inhabit Puget Sound year-round.

A family affair

For Hanada, the derby has always been a family affair, with multiple generations and loads of friends participating annually. But dwindling salmon numbers have changed things over time. “Back in the day we were catching a fair bit of blackmouth,” he said. “Nowadays it’s more swapping stories. Just a way of keeping in touch, even though we aren’t catching much.”

The biggest catch in the Tengu record was 25 pounds. Recently, however, winning fish have only weighed somewhere between six and nine pounds. Tengu Club members like Hanada witnessed firsthand the alarming changes occurring in Puget Sound salmon populations, far before researchers arrived to analyze any data. “We lived it, so we saw the decline,” Hanada said. “We experienced it.”

Such declines significantly impact traditions like the Tengu Derby. There have been a few winters in which the derby has been outright canceled due to low salmon numbers, while other seasons have been abruptly cut short. “It’s tough to say when we will start up again, if we start up again,” he said. “There’s a lot of ifs.”

Plaque commemorating the Tengu Club in West Seattle
Doug Hanada
A plaque commemorating the Tengu Club sits next to the pier at Seacrest Park in West Seattle

The human element

According to Quinn, using recreational fishing data in research is relatively uncommon, but he has had success with it in the past. “Skillful anglers know things that a lot of us in the scientific community don’t know,” he said. “There are a lot of patterns that I’ve learned about from talking to sport fishermen that have generated scientific projects. We have a lot to learn from them.” Had it not been for the Tengu Club’s meticulous record keeping and willingness to collaborate, these new findings may not have been identified. “It was a nice collaboration, because nobody could have done it without the others. We all had very important but different roles to play.”

Quinn is well aware of the important role fish and fishing play in many peoples’ lives. “You can’t study salmon and trout without understanding the human connection to them. They’re not just our food, they’re not just a product, they’re not just part of the ecosystem. They’re culturally important. I’m intrigued by that human element.”

Without healthy salmon runs, events such as the Tengu Derby cannot exist. Thus, protecting our local salmon populations is an endeavor that reaches far beyond the salmon themselves and into our own communities.

Story by Amelia Wells