Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Calif. chinook fishing season halted again

Fish v. people eh? The issue is not black and white. Fishermen suffer when the quality of our oceans, rivers, and delta are impaired. A healthy delta is one with more water flowing in, not flowing around it or pumped out of it to L.A. Yes, pumping is reduced due to declining Smelt(a bellwether of Delta health), but a sick Delta harms much more than minnows. - Brandon

By JASON DEAREN, Associated Press Writer

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

(04-08) 17:35 PDT Millbrae, Calif. (AP) --

California's commercial chinook salmon fishing season will be called off again after a record low number of the fish returned to the Sacramento River to spawn last year, federal fisheries managers announced Wednesday.

The decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council will almost completely curtail commercial fishing in Oregon as well, but allows the sport and commercial seasons in Washington to proceed at an almost normal level.

The halt to California's salmon fishing season marks the second year in a row that the council has completely halted commercial angling for natural and hatchery chinook or "king" salmon. Last year's cancellation was the first ever.

A 10-day sport season in California will be allowed from Eureka to the Oregon border from Aug. 29 to Sept. 7, said Chuck Tracy, salmon staff officer for the council.

In Oregon, regulators will allow 11,000 coho salmon to be fished in September. But chinook salmon can only be caught off the northernmost area of the Oregon coast near Washington.

The council will now forward its decision to the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval before May 1.

Chinook salmon hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then migrate to the ocean where they feed and grow, only to return to spawn in the fresh waters in which they were born.

King salmon populations returning to the Central Valley to spawn in 2008 continued a precipitous decline seen in recent years. The council estimated that 66,264 salmon adults returned in 2008 to the Sacramento River. The estimate was down from 90,000 in 2007, which had dropped from a high of more than 750,000 adult salmon counted in 2002.

The Sacramento River chinook run often provides the bulk of salmon caught off the coasts of California and Oregon. Returns in the Klamath River, the next big salmon spawning river north of the Sacramento, were higher overall but still fewer than expected.

A number of factors are cited to explain the salmon decline in California. In the Sacramento Delta, many blame the large pumps used to move water around for farming and other uses. Others say ocean changes due to greenhouse gas pollution also are producing less food for the fish.

While the decision angered some fishermen, others said they were prepared for the season to be called off, and hope the actions will improve their livelihoods in coming years.

"It's better off sitting out this season, then looking at good projections for next year," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, an industry group.

Still, any optimism for a better salmon run next year was tempered by the reality of how devastating a third year without a salmon season would be to California's fishing communities, especially on the north coast.

"If there's a third year, I'm not sure we'll have a salmon fishing industry anymore," Grader said.

Salmon return forecasts in the Sacramento River are expected to double next year to about 122,196, a mere 196 fish above the number biologists say are needed to sustain the population. That means that only 196 fish could be legally caught.

Salmon fisherman Chad Dahlberg, 27, of Half Moon Bay, said it's frustrating to lose his most lucrative fishery when, in his view, fishing had nothing to do with the salmon declines. "I do think that it's not an overfishing problem, it's due to mismanagement of the fishery," he said.

Dahlberg, who has owned his own boat for the past six years, said he would go north to Oregon to fish salmon if he could, so the cancellation of both states' seasons has hit him hard.

Marija Vojkovich, who is California's representative on the fisheries council, said it is unfortunate that the season had to be called off, but she and other council members expressed optimism that the seasons would not be called off for a third year in a row.

"I hope all salmon stocks in 2010 will allow for all ocean and freshwater fisheries," she said.

In the meantime, struggling California salmon fisherman will have to survive in other ways.

Congress approved $170 million relief package last year for struggling fishermen and related businesses to make it through the year. About $50 million of that was set aside in anticipation of this year's season being canceled, Grader said.

Eureka-based salmon and crab fisherman Dave Bitts, who has fished salmon for 30 years, said the relief money was a big help to him last year. Dahlberg also received some of the emergency funds last year.

Bitts said a few of the state's salmon anglers were able to switch to catching groundfish like black cod to help make ends meet, but that most just took the hit.

"Even if we all went to groundfish, there's no combination of fisheries out there to replace the loss of salmon," Bitts said.

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