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Coho fishing holds promise; Chinook fishing likely to be nil

By Susan Chambers, Editor, The Umpqua Post 3/10/09

NEWPORT — Commercial salmon trollers fishing for hints of a season this year got some bad news Thursday: it’s likely to be closed again.

There was some good news, amidst all the bad — coho numbers look good for much of the coast. That means Washington commercial trollers will have a season and local sport fishermen could get more opportunity — but first, all had to endure the dire news that kept people cringing.

It was the Oregon Ocean Salmon Industry Group meeting Thursday, the annual event at which the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife presents data about how many fish have returned to West Coast rivers, recaps last year’s seasons and takes down suggestions for this year.

Sacramento River stocks are down. Most people already know that, said Eric Schindler, the ODFW ocean sampling project leader. The number of Sacramento fall Chinook, the main driver for West Coast salmon fisheries, returning to the river was fewer than 70,000. Biologists  say a minimum of 122,000 is needed to keep the stock sustainable. Last year, the number was about 88,000 — not enough top support sport or commercial salmon seasons in California and Oregon.

One of the other three main salmon-producing rivers, the Klamath, was again an underachiever. It was the Klamath, not the Sacramento, that constrained fishing in 2005 and 2006.

“We did not meet the 35,000 (fish) floor,” said Eric Schindler, ODFW’s ocean sampling project leader. That’s the minimum number necessary to keep the fall Chinook stocks healthy on the river that winds through northern California and southern Oregon.

“Obviously, we’re still having problems down there on the Klamath,” ODFW Assistant Fish Division Administrator Steve Williams said.

Winchester Bay troller Alvin Gorgita said fishermen should be allowed to fish — and show the feds where the fish are.

“There’s a lot of commercial fishermen in here who would like to go out there and find those salmon and tell you where they’re at,” Gorgita said.

But to some degree, for ocean sport coho fishing there could be some opportunity. It all depends on the guidance from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Politics could play a big part. President Barack Obama has asked former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a governor who is well aware of what salmon means to the Northwest, to fill the Department of Commerce post. NMFS falls under the commerce umbrella.

“We have some very healthy populations of coho,” said Ron Boyce, the technical resources program manager for ODFW. “This is a good opportunity for these river sport fisheries.”

Many of Central and Southern Oregon rivers had good coho returns, including the Siuslaw, Coos and Coquille, he said.

Some discontent

As Williams and Schindler began taking suggestions on seasons, one thing was clear: Oregon fishermen were unhappy with California’s in-river fisheries.

In April 2008, at the Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, California Department of Fish and Game representative to the council, Marija Vojkovich, repeatedly said, “every fish counts,” “every fish counts,” when Oregon representatives practically begged for a small ocean sport coho season and to allow for some incidental Chinook catch to allow for genetic studies to continue.

Oregon lost the fight for genetic studies, but did win a small sport coho season.

At the same time,Vojkovich said the returns on the Klamath likely would be enough to allow an in-river fishery — something else that irritated Oregon representatives — because there would only be enough fish if the Oregon ocean Chinook season was closed completely. She also said she’d argue the Fish and Game Commission to close in-river fishing on the Sacramento and other Central Valley Rivers.

That didn’t happen. In-river fishing still took place.

“If the Sacramento river was so bad, why did they have an in-river fishery?” one fisherman in the audience asked.

Williams just shook his head. He was at the table and pushed for as much as Oregon could get when his motions were voted down in April last year.

“I’m not going to explain California,” he said. “We do not control what they do in California.”

Some fishermen suggested Williams go to the council and ask for anything he could get for Oregon’s sport and commercial fishermen. Some of the trollers asked for a September-to-October season, since, theoretically, the Sacramento fish will have passed by Oregon by then. Others wanted to make sure that if there were options of four-days-on, three-days-off, that those fishing days be during the week, not over the weekends.

“Why have seasons Thursday through Sunday?” said Port Orford fisherman Chris Aiello. “We’d like to have weekends with our families.”

Still others wanted to scrap the season altogether and go immediately to try for further disaster relief.

Williams and Schindler assembled all the suggestions and will craft options to take to the Fishery Council when it meets in Seattle March 7-12 to adopt ocean salmon options for public review. The council will make its final decision at the April 4-9 meeting in Millbrae, Calif.

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