West Coast salmon season imperiled by low stocks

With chinook at record lows in the Sacramento River, fishery will set limits in April.

kurt rogers/the san francisco chronicle/ap/file
A big catch: West Coast salmon fishing may be banned for the entire season because chinook are at half the number needed to meet demand.

Dave Bitts, a Eureka-based salmon trawler for more than 30 years, says he could lose half his yearly income, and coastal towns from Oregon to the Mexico border will lose a mainstay of their economy and culture.

Savina Duran, manager of Sea Harvest restaurant in Moss Landing, Calif., says diners will have to forgo a hot-ticket menu choice – wild, fresh, local salmon – for cheaper, farm-grown varieties from elsewhere.

Steve Scheiblauer, harbor master for Monterey, Calif., says the town could lose the quaintness of a coastal California fishing village as fleets of fishing boats disappear from the harbor.

Their concerns come with the cutback – and possible shutdown – of ocean salmon fishing in California and Oregon. It could happen because US government assessments showed the spawning chinook at half the minimum number needed for current statewide industry demand.

A total shutdown of salmon fishing – one of three options to be decided by April 6 – would be the biggest fishing closure in West Coast history, experts say.

"The status of Sacramento [River] fall chinook has suddenly collapsed to an unprecedented low level," says Donald Hansen, chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) – a quasifederal body that assesses and recommends environmental policy to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "The effect on California and Oregon salmon fisheries is a disaster by any definition."

After warning that steps would be taken, the PFMC on Friday released three options. One includes minimal salmon fishing for scientific study; a second, small fishing ranges and short seasons shared by recreationalists and commercial fishermen; a third, a ban on salmon fishing altogether from Cape Falcon, Ore., to the American-Mexican border for a year.

"No matter which option is ultimately chosen, it is clear that salmon fishing on America's West Coast is about to be severely limited," says Peter Dygert, a fishery biologist with NOAA.

Environmentalists, fishing groups, and regulators agree that a slew of factors have contributed to the decline of salmon in the past century. Those include diversions of fresh water of the state's northern rivers to the populated south, pollution, habitat loss, changes in hatchery operations, and the proliferation of predators such as sea lions.

They also include ocean conditions in recent years that have caused interruptions in production of food species that salmon feed on while in the ocean.

"Mankind has been guilty of salmon abuse for decades," says Mark Powell of the Ocean Conservancy. "We've been hitting and hammering on salmon with all these different injuries for decade after decade, and now there are so many reasons for decline we don't even know what has been the last straw."

At its meeting last week in Sacramento, Calif., the PFMC said it will review 46 possible factors for the salmon's decline before a final choice of options is made in Seattle in April.

"We need to thoroughly research what has gone wrong," said Marija Vojkovich for the California Department of Fish and Game. "The first step is to identify where to focus the research."

Fishermen say they don't begrudge the recommendations of dramatic cutbacks in salmon fishing. "The action the council is doing is appropriate and necessary," says Mr. Bitts. "The question is whether or not there is something subject to human control that we could change so that this would not be necessary."

Environmentalists, economists, and tourism analysts say the loss of salmon fishing – which would last a year before reassessment – should involve a societywide study of social and cultural values. Like Maine lobster and Massachusetts cod, the salmon is an icon that defines California.

"The question is whether or not California is slowly losing its fishing heritage," says Mr. Scheiblauer. "I just think there are trade-offs society needs to think about … in how do we protect fishermen in ways that fisheries are sustainable and keep them going for all the things that society wants."

Mr. Powell says an ordinary consumer of salmon probably will not notice a decrease in the availability or cost of salmon because of the number of salmon farms has increased in the past 20 years. Even so, wild salmon fishermen claim there is no comparison in texture and taste between their fish and farm-grown. All the growth has spurred producers of wild salmon in Oregon, California, Alaska, and Canada to market their variety as specialized or elite brands, and charge three to four times the price – and in some cases, 10 times the price.

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