|Feds may drastically cut salmon season
Experts say low numbers of chinook in Klamath, Trinity rivers could even spur cancellation of commercial, sport fishing
By KATY HILLENMEYER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Regulators may severely curtail commercial and sport salmon fishing off California this year, and could even cancel the season.
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The number of mature chinook salmon leaving the ocean to spawn in the Klamath and Trinity rivers has fallen short of a goal of 35,000 two years running, biologists said.
And the forecast for wild salmon returning to the Klamath this year is lower than it's been since 1992, which industry experts say could trigger a shortened fishing season from northern Oregon to Monterey.
"The way that the stars are aligned, it would be the most restrictive year since 1992," said Rod McInnis, southwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Even with commercial and recreational fishing prohibited through August between Oregon's Cape Falcon and California's Point Sur - and with tribal and sport fishing banned on the Klamath - the wild salmon would barely top 29,000, biologists predict.
Bodega Bay's salmon fishing season typically ends Sept. 30.
After 1992's dismal spawning forecast, "it's the second lowest .. . on record," said Chuck Tracy of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which advises U.S. regulators about offshore fishing limits in California, Oregon and Washington.
The March 15 opening of salmon fishing off Fort Bragg is likely to be postponed, he said, and Bodega Bay fishermen may again see their traditional May1 opening pushed into mid-summer.
"The whole fishery could be delayed or not happen," Tracy said Thursday. "I doubt there will be anything like last year's seasons. I think that would be pretty optimistic."
Tens of thousands of salmon died in 2002 when water diversions for agriculture in Oregon left the Klamath River too low and too warm, an episode that has had lasting effects on ocean fishermen's freedom to harvest fall chinook.
Conservation-driven limits delayed the commercial season off Bodega Bay last summer until July 4, cutting nine weeks out of a five-month season. Thanks to higher prices, California's salmon fishermen still grossed $12.8 million in 2004, industry records indicate, a year after reaping $18.4 million.
The Portland, Ore.-based fishery management council will not finalize the last of its 2006 chinook recommendations to federal regulators until April. But fishermen, including many coming off a delayed crab season, are prepared for another short summer.
"The worst scenario is there would be no fishing whatsoever for salmon; the best would be typical of last year's season," said Chuck Wise, a Bodega Bay fisherman who earns half of his income off salmon. "There will be full fishing below Point Sur, but there are not many salmon close to the coast of Mexico."
Wise, who presides over the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said it wouldn't be worth the cost of fuel to fish south of Monterey.
Fishermen will lobby for an emergency exception to allow fishing in spite of conservation shortfalls, he said.
Under a federal law to sustain fisheries, if salmon spawning targets are missed three years in a row, "that triggers an overfishing review," said Allen Glover, a senior biologist in Santa Rosa with the state Department of Fish and Game.
So "without an emergency rule to go fishing, legally we can't go fishing under federal law," he said. "We're all waiting for the National Marine Fisheries Service to tell us whether we can go fishing."
Salmon from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are plentiful again this year.
"But it's the water situation on the Klamath that's created all this problem," Wise said. "As long as they keep pumping all the water out of the Klamath, this is never going to change."