Tuesday, March 3, 2009
(03-03) 17:05 PST SANTA ROSA -- The bad news about fishing was couched in numbers and graphs, study results and scientific jargon, but there was no mistaking the message: Californians won't be eating much local salmon this year.
That was the gist of a day-long meeting in Santa Rosa Tuesday at which state Department of Fish and Game biologists told fishermen, conservationists and others that surveys and studies show the state's salmon fishery in near-complete ruin.
Biologists estimated only 66,000 adult salmon returning to the Sacramento River to spawn last fall - only the second time in 16 years that the number of fall-run chinook failed to meet the Pacific Fishery Management Council's goal of 122,000 to 180,000 adult fish.
In 2007, a similar count was so dismal that federal regulators banned ocean fishing in California and most of Oregon last spring and summer, the first total closure in California history. Experts are predicting barely enough spawning fish next fall to meet the 122,000 goal - and that's only if ocean fishing is banned this year.
It is crushing news for a fishing industry that was in trouble even before the nation went into recession.
Fort Bragg fisherman Bill Forkner argued Tuesday that salmon hatcheries were supposed to ensure that fishing would continue in exchange for the dams that state and federal governments put up on the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems.
"Fishermen are ecologists. We want things right, and we don't want to catch the last fish," said Forkner, 54. "But we also want a chance to make a living at what we've done all our lives. They knew the wild fish wouldn't survive when they put up the dams, but they promised us that we would have something to fish."
Chinook that spawn in the fall, traditionally the largest salmon run of the year, are the same ones that are fished out of the ocean during the spring and summer.
The fabled fall run has been in steady decline since 2005, according to data released Tuesday, despite the addition of hundreds of millions of hatchery-raised chinook, including 32 million last year.
There are no reliable studies showing how many of the surviving fish in the ocean and rivers are from hatcheries. But a study last year of fish caught by sport fishermen found that 71 percent of them were raised in hatcheries. Regardless of the influence of hatcheries, very few chinook of any kind are surviving.
State and federal scientists believe that warmer ocean conditions have reduced the food supply for the fish. Record exports of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta coincided with major declines in chinook, a factor that environmentalists and fishing representatives believe is the major culprit.
Studies are being done on stream flow, water oxygen levels, temperature, gravel, toxic substances, food, predation and chemical contamination in an attempt to isolate problems in the Sacramento River system.
The answers can't come soon enough for those whose livelihoods depend on it.
"It is taking them a real long time to figure out what the problems are," said Don Platt, a 49-year-old fisherman from Fort Bragg. "In the meantime, we're not fishing and a whole lot of fishermen are going out of business."
The Pacific Fishery Management Council will discuss another possible salmon fishing ban during its annual meeting that begins Sunday in Seattle. The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to make a final decision on fishing quotas by May 1, when California's salmon fishing season normally begins.