Wednesday, March 12, 2008
(03-12) 04:00 PDT Sacramento - --
So few salmon are living in the ocean and rivers along the Pacific Coast that salmon fishing in California and Oregon will have to be shut down completely this year unless an emergency exception is granted, Pacific Fishery Management Council representatives said Tuesday.
It would mark the first time ever that the federal agency created 22 years ago to manage the Pacific Coast fishery canceled the coast's traditional salmon fishing season from April to mid-November.
Such a move would jeopardize the livelihoods of close to 1,000 commercial fishermen from Santa Barbara to Washington State and would significantly drive up the price of West Coast wild salmon.
A decision to shut down the fishery also would kill recreational salmon fishing for some 2.4 million anglers in California, an activity that the American Sportfishing Association has estimated is worth $4 billion.
The council is expected to make a recommendation in April to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will make the final decision about what to do about the collapsing salmon fishery.
"This is unprecedented," said Dave Bitts, a commercial salmon and crab fisherman based in Eureka. "The Sacramento fish are our bread and butter, and there are not even any crumbs. It's horrible. It means half or more of my income is not going to be there at all this year."
Why season can be closed
The prospect of banning fishing came up during the first full day of presentations about the salmon crisis during the council's weeklong meeting at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento.
The council's salmon management plan, first adopted as part of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and amended several times since then, requires the council to close ocean fishing if the number of spawning salmon do not reach the conservation objectives set for the fishery.
There are many ways to count fish, depending on what rivers and tributaries are included, but only 63,900 fall run salmon were documented spawning in the Sacramento River in 2007, far below the 122,000 to 189,000 objective the council had set.
The doom and gloom brought on by the poor run was made worse by news that the number of jacks - 2-year-old fish that return to the river a year early to spawn - is the lowest ever recorded in the Central Valley fall run. Scientists use the number of jacks that return as an indicator of what next year's spawning season will look like.
Fisheries experts expected 157,000 jacks, but counted only 6,000.
What it means is that all fishing where the fall run chinook are caught must be closed unless there is an emergency rule allowing an exemption, said Chuck Tracy, a staff officer for the council. Chinook from the Sacramento and its tributaries are caught in California, Oregon and Washington, but the catch in Washington is historically small enough that it might not fall under the rule.
"Washington could be exempted, but California and Oregon will definitely be affected," Tracy said.
Cape Falcon, in northern Oregon, would likely be the boundary for a fishery closure, said Peter Dygert, the fisheries management chief of the sustainable fisheries division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Any fishing south of Cape Falcon will have to be implemented under emergency rule. There are going to be relatively few fish in the ocean overall."
Federal disaster possible
The situation is so bad that there have been discussions during the meetings about declaring the salmon fishery a federal disaster, Tracy said.
The Klamath and Trinity river run, another major salmon run along the Pacific Coast, was declared a disaster in 2006 after a similar collapse, freeing up money to help those who are financially dependent on the salmon industry. The Klamath and Trinity crisis led to a dismal commercial and recreational salmon catch last year.
"This is the same situation we were in two years ago in the Klamath," Tracy said. At that time, "they did allow some fisheries in the ocean through an emergency rule."
But, in many ways, the situation is even worse now. Peter Lawson, of the National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Marine Fisheries Science Center, told the council that five different salmon stocks in the three states have failed two years in a row, including chinook and coho salmon.
The emergency exemption allowed some fishing along the Pacific Coast after the salmon crisis on the Klamath, but Fisheries experts were hard pressed to come up with any excuse the council could use this time to justify an exception, given the dire circumstances.
"The California, Oregon and Washington coastal stocks are all depressed," Tracy said. "The Sacramento fall chinook are in the worst shape. Is it a crisis? If you are a commercial fisherman or someone who relies on the fishing industry, yes."
The Sacramento River fall run, the San Francisco Bay's biggest wild salmon run, was the second worst on record for spawning chinook. The worst year was in 1992, but the fishery recovered and as recently as 2002 there were hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon in the Sacramento watershed.
At its peak, the fall run, which essentially means fish that are at their spawning peak in September and October, exceeded 800,000 fish. Over the past decade, the numbers had never fallen below 250,000 - until this past fall.
Nothing to catch
Fisheries experts say even if the salmon fishery remained wide open there would not be any salmon left to catch.
The collapse is especially troublesome because the recreational and commercial fishing industries all along the Pacific coast depend on fish born in the Sacramento River and its tributaries. The Central Valley chinook, or king, salmon pass through the San Francisco Bay after hatching in the river and roam the Pacific Ocean as far away as Alaska before returning three years later to the place where they were born.
The fall run - named for the time the fish pass through the Golden Gate returning to their native streams - is, in fact, the last survivor of dozens of teeming salmon runs up and down the Pacific coast. The Central Valley's spring run may once have been the largest, but most of the habitat is now behind dams.
The scientists, fishermen and tribal representatives at the meetings this week are trotting out various theories for the decline, including global warming, diversions of freshwater in the delta, pumping operations, a lack of nutrient rich deep ocean upwellings and exposure to pollutants. One document lists 46 possible reasons.
Dygert said the death of so many salmon "is suggesting a broad-scale ocean survival problem."
"One thing we know is that these fish had plenty of parents," said Bitts. "Something has happened since then."
The council, which will propose three options for managing the fishery by the end of the week, asked staff scientists Tuesday to investigate a variety of possible causes, including hatchery operations and ecological changes in the ocean and fresh water environments.
Fisheries in crisis
What's next: The Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting in Sacramento, will consider recommendations by conservationists, biologists, tribal interests and fishing industry representatives. The council will propose three options Friday for what to do about this year's fishing season.
Input: The public can comment over the next month in writing or at hearings in Oregon and Washington on March 31 and in Eureka on April 1.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle