Fishermen hit hard by closure of West Coast salmon fishing
Drastic federal action to try to save chinook salmon is latest move in ongoing battle.
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Federal officials this month canceled the salmon fishing season from southern California to Cape Falcon in northern Oregon. The cause: an "unprecedented collapse" in adult chinook ("king" salmon) returning from the ocean to their spawning grounds in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.
Farther north, salmon in the Klamath River, which angles northeast through California and Oregon to high desert ranch country, are barely holding on as well. Multiparty talks about removing four small hydropower dams, which prevent migrating fish from reaching much of their traditional habitat, have dragged on for years with no resolution in sight.
And up in the Columbia River Basin, an area the size of central Europe, annual salmon runs that once reached an estimated 16 million fish now total fewer than 1 million. Thirteen evolutionary-specific salmon populations are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act there. US District Judge James Redden has rejected plan after plan for Columbia Basin salmon recovery put forth by federal agencies, and he threatens to order stricter measures for dam operations as he waits for yet another recovery plan due next month.
Regarding the recent news about the Sacramento River salmon fishery closure, Zeke Grader puts it starkly:
"It's going to be devastating," says Mr. Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco. "We're going to be asking for federal assistance and looking for alternatives to keep our fishermen afloat for the next year or two until we get a chance to fix salmon problems."
The economic impact of the California and Oregon coastal commercial and sport salmon fishery varies. According to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, it averaged $103 million per year between 1979 and 2004, then dropped to $61 million in recent years due to declining fish runs. Many commercial fishermen can get income from other seafood species, but the number of commercially licensed fishing boats along the West Coast has declined in recent decades from the thousands to the hundreds.
The governors of Oregon, Washington, and California are seeking federal disaster assistance for idled fishermen. Like the northern spotted owl, another controversial and threatened species in the region, salmon face a multitude of challenges – many more, in fact, than the hapless owl that's been pitted politically against loggers and millworkers.
Among those challenges and competing interests: farm irrigators, developers, industries that pollute rivers and streams, commercial and sport fishermen, and native American tribes that fished these waters long before European-Americans pushed West seeking fur, land, and gold.