Lean times for salmon fishermen

Federal officials are expected to shut down salmon fishing along a 700-mile stretch of Pacific Coast.

It's looking like a bleak, belt-tightening year for thousands of commercial fishermen along the Pacific Coast. From Point Sur in California to Cape Falcon in Oregon - 700 miles in all - the skippers and crew of some 2,000 boats are likely to have to forgo salmon, their main money fish.

That's because of plummeting fish runs in the Klamath River and what's expected to be an order by federal officials that commercial and sport salmon fishing be closed. Some boats will continue to bring in dungeness crab, herring, albacore tuna, and other seafood. But they count on succulent chinook salmon for 70 percent of their income.

"Year in, year out, salmon is the one that they depend upon," says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco, which represents organizations from San Diego to Alaska. "It's their anchor fishery."

Salmon fishing off the coast of California and Oregon is a $150 million a year industry, on average. And while coastal towns like Newport, Ore., have seen fish canneries replaced by tourist attractions (Keiko the killer whale lived at the aquarium there for several years), sport-fishing charter boats, restaurants, and motels could be impacted as well.

If approved, this would be one of the most extensive fishery shutdowns on the Pacific Coast.

From its headwaters in southern Oregon, the Klamath River flows southwest to the sea in northern California. It once was one of the most productive rivers in North America. But in recent decades, its annual salmon runs have fallen to a small fraction of their historic numbers.

As with the Columbia River Basin to the north, many culprits are involved, most recognized only in hindsight. And like many natural-resource issues in the West, the Klamath River situation reflects the longstanding political and scientific challenges of balancing environmental, economic, and political interests.

Those challenges began a century ago with Teddy Roosevelt's decision to "reclaim" the vast wetlands of the Klamath River Basin by building irrigation systems that would attract homesteading farmers and ranchers. This was followed by construction of four power-generating dams, as well as increasing concern about endangered species. Another complicating factor has been the treaty rights of Indian tribes near the mouth of the Klamath and at the river's headwaters.

Throw in a couple of recent drought years, and the result has been too much demand on too little water. Over the years, salmon runs plummeted to 4 percent of their historic numbers, largely due to reduced river flows, which cause warmer waters and fish-killing diseases. During this period, when the commercial fishing season periodically was cut short, 80 percent of the salmon fleet went out of business.

In Seattle this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that monitors the well-being of oceangoing species, predicted that this year's Klamath River salmon run would fall below the minimum for conservation (35,000 fish returning from the Pacific to the river to spawn). NMFS recommended that the fishery be closed this season, a decision expected to be followed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils established by Congress to manage fisheries up to 200 miles offshore.

Coincidentally, the controversy over closing the salmon fishery this year comes just as government regulators are deciding whether to renew federal licenses for the four hydropower dams on the lower Klamath River, the first built in 1917, the last in 1962. The dams are operated by PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of energy giant Scottish Power in Glasgow.

None of these dams has fish passage devices, which means that 350 miles of historic salmon-spawning habitat in the river and its tributary streams were cut off. The dams also create reservoirs, which warm the water. Adding to the problem are the pollution and turbidity caused by runoff from farming, ranching, and logging - mainstays of the region's economy.

Irrigators are eager to keep the dams operating - not because they bring water to farmers' fields (which they don't) but because they charge low power rates to pump the water from canals and wells. Compared to modern gas-fired generators, the dams on the Klamath provide a relatively small amount of power for the electrical grid. But county governments in the largely rural area fear the loss of an important part of their tax base if the dams are removed.

As old dams around the country come up for license renewal, many have been taken out because new restrictions on their design and operation have made them uneconomical. That's what dam opponents here would like to see happen.

"If we don't remove dams now, there won't be any salmon left the next time the dams are relicensed," says Michael Belchik, fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribe in Weitchpec, Calif.

Salmon like cool, clear water and gravel beds in which to spawn. The manipulated environment resulting from the dams has made the migrating fish (both adults returning to spawn and juveniles headed out to sea) more vulnerable to disease and parasites.

In 2002 and 2003, more than 80 percent of juvenile chinook died before reaching the end of the river and open ocean waters.

"If we're going to save this river, we're going to have to do two things, and we have to do them soon," says Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the fishermen's federation. "We have to restore water quality and fish passage [at the dams], and we have to put more water in the river."

If they aren't able to troll for salmon this year, officials in Seattle said this week, fishermen are likely to be eligible for federal disaster relief.

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