April 9, 2008

Pacific Coast Salmon Fishing Will Be All but Off-Limits This Summer

SEATTLE -- Key advisers pushed Tuesday for a near-complete closure of the Pacific Ocean salmon fishery off the Oregon and California coasts, leaving room only for extremely limited commercial trolling and sportfishing.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council's informal vote late Tuesday stopped short of a complete shutdown. But it left no doubt that the 2008 season would be struck to record lows. Driving the drop is the collapse of Sacramento River chinook, a run vital to open-ocean fishing off Oregon and California.

"The season is a disaster from the get-go, regardless," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the top U.S. agency overseeing salmon.

The council will make its final recommendation Thursday. At best, Oregon's commercial trollers will get an abbreviated season from May 1 to May 30 along a segment of coast from Cape Falcon, near Manzanita, to Humbug Mountain, just below Port Orford -- more than three-quarters the state's length. The May-only rule would bar trollers entirely from the far more productive summer season.

It's either that or no season at all, with a captain's best bet to try tuna or crabbing or sign up for a coastal genetic salmon study that would pay to catch salmon, take tissue samples for analysis, then release them.

Recreational and charter boat fishing will be hard hit, too.

Salmon-seeking sportfishing and charter boat operators south of Cape Falcon -- crucial to tourism in coastal towns, particularly south of Newport -- are in line for cuts. The council's projections chop "angler trips" for salmon from 181,000 last year -- a bad year, by all accounts -- to 23,000 trips at best. Sportfishing north of Cape Falcon, hurt by low natural coho numbers in the Columbia River, will also see a huge cut in their allowable salmon catch.

Oregon's sport and charter boats operating south of Cape Falcon will be allowed to catch hatchery coho from June 22 through Aug. 31, with a limit of two fish a day per person. For all but the south coast, they'll also be allowed a bag limit of one chinook a day from May 1 to June 15. South of Humbug Mountain, where concerns about Klamath River fish abound, the chinook catch will be limited to three holiday weekends.

For Washington, the picture isn't quite as bleak. Commercial restrictions do not apply there or to the small portion of Oregon's coast north of Cape Falcon, far less dependent on Sacramento chinook. But sportfishing north of Cape Falcon will also see a huge cut in the allowable salmon catch because of low natural coho salmon numbers in the Columbia River.

Lohn and federal fishery managers, who will review the council's recommendations and make the final season decisions, could put a complete closure for Oregon and California back on the table -- no matter what the fisheries council says on Thursday. Returning Sacramento fish, beset by poor ocean conditions and in competition with farms and cities for water, are projected to fall to 58,200 this year, a historic low.

On Tuesday, Frank Lockhart, a council member and sustainable fisheries administrator in the National Marine Fisheries Service's Northwest office, repeatedly warned that justifying any fishing at all will be difficult. That's even for the genetic research project, which would end up killing some fish, he said.

The normally robust Sacramento fall chinook stock, a combination of hatchery and natural fish, head north to Northern California and Oregon before returning to the Sacramento to spawn. That journey "is the bread and butter off the coast of California and Oregon," Lockhart said. Allowing fishing this year "raises the concern of tampering with that."

But some fishermen questioned the numbers of Sacramento River fish that would actually be caught, particularly in early season fishing.

And fishermen and coastal residents who depend on them said they could use some relief. That would come preferably in the form of expanded fishing opportunities but could also include the research work and federal disaster assistance, which Congress would have to approve.

Jim Relaford, a commissioner for the Port of Brookings Harbor, said Brookings, Gold Beach, and Port Orford all rely on sportfishing and charter boats to bring in tourists, typically for three-day trips. That helps coast residents pay off loans they took out in the dead of winter, sell fishing tackle and run restaurants.

"In our county, an angler day is like a piece of gold," Relaford said. "They're the engines that make the economy work."

Lockhart, the NMFS official, asked Jim Welter, one of several south coast advocates who testified before the council, whether allowing a small fishery is worth it given the risk of undermining Sacramento stocks.

"It is, because without it you might as well pull the cords down and go home," Welter said. "There isn't any income."