What’s a summer without salmon? We’ll find out

By Peter Ottesen
Outdoors Columnist
March 26, 2008

Although the Pacific Fishery Management Council won’t select its final plan to manage West Coast salmon fisheries until its April 7-12 meetings in Seattle, a former member of the council believes there will be no ocean or Central Valley salmon fishing seasons this year and probably won’t until 2010, at the earliest.

“We are not going to have a salmon fishing season,” said Roger Thomas, president of the Golden Gate Sportfishing Association. “The Sacramento River stock of king salmon has experienced an unprecedented collapse and ranks as the mother of all disasters.”

Thomas said the Sacramento River is “the driver” of commercial and recreational fisheries off California and southern Oregon, producing upwards of 85 percent of all the king salmon found in this vast stretch of coastline. The minimum conservation goal for Sacramento River fall kings is an escapement of 122,000 to 180,000 spawning adult fish. In 2008, the fall run is projected to be less than 52,000 salmon, even if all fishing seasons are closed.

As recently as 2002, 775,000 adult king salmon returned to spawn. In 2007, it was 88,000.

In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service has canceled the salmon fishing season from Point Arena to the Mexican border that was supposed to open on April 5. The federal government can change the rules in the middle of the year. The north coast season at Fort Bragg and Shelter Cove will cease on March 31, the earliest regulations can be changed administratively.

Chuck Tracy, a biologist who leads the salmon fishery staff for the PFMC, said his agency must allow the process of selecting recommendations to play out. But he conceded, “I woudn’t be surprised if there is no ocean salmon fishing or in-river fishing in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.”

The PFMC has three options that offer minimal to no fishing, and will recommend one of them to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Two of the options allow for no take of salmon,” Tracy said. “The other option allows the take of only 1,000 kings and limits angling to nine days on holiday weekends – Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day – from Humbug Mountain in southern Oregon to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. South of Pigeon Point to the Mexican border, the season would be slashed to nine days, May 18-26.”

PFMC recommendations to the federal government cover ocean waters from three miles and out. Coastal waters from the shoreline to three miles and all rivers fall under the province of the state Department of Fish and Game. Because the PFMC works in consultation with the DFG, the California Fish and Game Commission normally follows the recommendation of the council. The commission meets April 10-11 in Bodega Bay.

“I believe Fish and Game will close all salmon fishing in state waters, ocean and in-river,” Thomas said. “Because salmon have a four- or five-year life cycle, I believe these closures will remain in effect until at least 2010. And that will depend upon the right ocean conditions, getting smolts downriver to the ocean and returning to spawn.”

His dire predictions are shared by others, such as Craig Stone at Emeryville Sportfishing Center, who sits on the Salmon Advisory Subpanel.

“The Fish and Game Commission will close the state waters,” Stone said. “The only place where any salmon fishing will be allowed in 2008 is in the Klamath River, where stocks can sustain Indian and recreational quotas.”

Reasons for the sudden collapse of the Sacramento River fall king salmon stock are not readily apparent to National Marine Fisheries Service biologists, who suggest ocean temperature changes and a resulting lack of upwelling are likely major culprits.

Tracy said he believes a combination of human-caused and natural factors are to blame, including freshwater in-river water withdrawls and diversions, habitat alterations, dam operations, construction, pollution and changes in hatchery operations, in addition to ocean conditions.

“Salmon stocks have declined up and down the coast from California to Washington,” Tracy said. “Salmon stocks tend to fluctuate – go up and down – but to witness an individual stock completely collapse is unusual.”

No salmon fishing will result in tremendous economic impact across the entire spectrum – charterboats, bait shops, boat dealers, fuel docks, sales people, fish markets, motels, restaurants and tackle manufacturers. Low abundance of Sacramento River stock salmon alone have an average economic value of $103 million per year and $61 million specific to local communities.

Said Jacky Douglas, owner of the charterboat Whacky Jacky out of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf: “I think the salmon season should be closed.”

Instead, she will focus on fishing for rockcod, halibut and striped bass, making whale watching trips to the Farallon Islands and offering private tours.

Thomas likes the move.

“The salmon season must be closed,” he said. “Hopefully, we can help bring this beautiful resource back.”

Contact outdoors columnist Peter Ottesen at pottesen@recordnet.com.