Friday, March 13, 2009
(03-12) 20:11 PDT --
The grim reality of a devastated salmon fishery hit home Thursday when the Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed to another ban on commercial fishing of chinook in California and Oregon.
It is the second straight year that the sea salts who make their living off the fabled fall run of Sacramento River king salmon will be grounded.
None of the three options approved by the 14-member panel made up of fishing interests, tribal representatives and conservation groups from California, Oregon and Washington included any commercial fishing in the two states.
The decision came after a week of testimony in Seattle that included mounting bad news about the California fishery.
Severe restrictions and bans on sportfishing were also included in the package, which will be narrowed down to a final option early next month.
"It's grim," said Dave Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "The ocean conditions were supposed to have turned around and gotten a lot better, so I'm kind of baffled, frankly."
The blame falls directly on the Central Valley fall run of chinook. Only about 66,000 adult salmon returned to spawn last fall in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, according to biologists whose estimates are based on a count of egg nests in the riverbed. It was the lowest return on record.
The collapse forced regulators to ban ocean salmon fishing in California and most of Oregon last year, the first time that had ever been done.
Fisheries biologists are projecting that the fall run of chinook this year will be almost twice as plentiful as last year, a fact that experts characterized as a thin thread of a silver lining. Still, the numbers will barely reach the council's minimum goal of 122,000 fish even if there is no fishing, according to the projections.
The council, which was established three decades ago to manage the Pacific Coast fishery, did include a little sportfishing in California in one of the options. If that option eventually gets approved, it would mean recreational fishermen could take chinook between Aug. 29 and Sept. 7 only in an area extending from the mouth of the Klamath River to southern Oregon.
Disastrous fall run
All three options would allow some commercial and sportfishing of hatchery-raised coho salmon - identifiable because the fleshy adipose fins have been removed - in Oregon during July and August.
Chinook, or king, salmon, pass through San Francisco Bay and roam the Pacific Ocean as far away as Alaska before returning three years later to spawn where they were born in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
The fall run - in September and October - has for decades been the backbone of the West Coast fishing industry.
At its peak, it exceeded 800,000 fish. Over the past decade, the numbers had consistently topped 250,000.
Until last year, the worst run on record was in 1992, when only 81,000 chinook returned to spawn.
Various possible causes
Changing ocean conditions, diversions of freshwater in the delta to cities and farms, pumping operations and exposure to pollutants have all been trotted out as culprits in the demise of the salmon. Some fishermen believe ravenous sea lions are to blame, but most environmentalists have consistently pointed to increases in water exports out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta as the primary reason for the decline.
Whatever the cause, more than 2,200 fishermen and fishing industry workers lost their jobs as a result of last year's ban. Fishing communities and fishing-related businesses lost more than $250 million. Indirect economic impacts were even larger, according to fishing industry representatives.
Federal fishery scientists are expected to release a report next week on possible reasons for the collapse, but it is already too late for the salmon this year.
The council will make a final recommendation to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service in early April. The final decision on the restrictions is expected to be made by May 1.
Restrictions on river fishing will be made at a later date by the California Department of Fish and Game, which allowed some 600 chinook to be caught last year, angering many commercial fishermen who felt it was wrong to allow any fishing.