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Ocean blamed for salmon decline

By Susan Chambers, Staff Writer  March 04, 2008 The World Link

Near-record low Chinook returns portend a severely curtailed fishery

COOS BAY — Not enough salmon? Blame it on the ocean.

The overwhelming assumption among state and federal fishery managers is that this year’s sport and commercial salmon fishing seasons in Oregon and California will be severely curtailed — or closed — thanks to near-record low returning fall Chinook to the Sacramento and other Central Valley rivers.

Some environmental and California fishing groups were quick to point the finger at the massive amounts of fresh water taken away from the rivers for agricultural and general use for California.

But that’s unlikely the sole reason, federal fishery managers said in a press release issued recently. Sure, it could be one of 46 different factors contributing to the decline, but it likely wasn’t the main problem.

Returning Chinook stocks — both wild and hatchery-raised fish — in general are down coastwide, with the exception of the Klamath River.

The escapement level, or the number of fish needed to return to spawn, for the Sacramento, is between 122,000 and 180,00 fish. Only 88,000 fish returned in 2007.

But even more importantly, the number of jacks — young male fish that return at 2 years old instead of 3 or 4 and provide a statistical indicator of potential returning adults — also was down: only 2,000 returned last year. It was a record low.

Moreover, it followed on the heels of another record low of 10,000 jacks in 2006.

It’s the ocean. Something happened out there in the great Pacific that made it difficult for salmon — both Chinook and coho — to survive. Upwelling in the California Current wasn’t very strong in 2005, scientists say. They’re still looking at all the possibilities.

Fishery managers also are considering the possibilities — for a season, that is. It’s grim. A “no fishing” option already is being considered for much of California and Oregon as scientists and managers prepare for the season-setting process this week at state meetings and next week at federal meetings. It would make the 2006 season that resulted in a complete closure for many commercial fishermen look like the states got off easy.

“Even absent any fishing, we may or may not make the escapement level (in 2008),” Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Curt Melcher said.

Sports are worried

Fewer places in Oregon do charter boat operators depend on salmon — both Chinook and coho — than in Winchester Bay.

Winchester Bay is home to Salmon Harbor and a fleet of about six charter operators and other guides who trailer in their boats from time to time. The small port has more charter operators than ports twice its size. Here, salmon is king.

But perhaps not this year.

It’s already giving Strike Zone Charters owner Scott Howard nightmares. It’s déjà vu.

“Our local area, I think, is in massive trouble,” Howard said.

Howard recalls that years ago, charter businesses closed their doors, sold their boats, quit fishing during another salmon crisis. But Howard came back to Winchester Bay as the fish returned. Other charter operators followed suit.

A few years later, salmon fishing hit a slump but Howard and other charters diversified, turning to groundfish — the lingcod, black rockfish and other rockfish species that appeal to customers.

It didn’t even take a decade for groundfish troubles to arise and then, seemingly overnight, Winchester Bay lost access to its offshore reefs, where rockfish congregate. Managers closed much of the recreational fishing past a certain depth to protect some species of rockfish. Similar regulations were in place for commercial fishermen, too.

Howard returned to the fish that kept his parents’ charter business and Strike Zone going in the past: salmon. But instead of coho, the mainstay that kept customers returning when Howard was a teenager, Chinook was the money fish.

“Fishing stopped with the coho season ended,” Howard said of his parents’ business. “In the past four or five years, people realize we have Chinook out there.”

Until this year. Coho stocks, too, are down. Coho often give sport fishermen a little added boost during the summer, a bonus. Silvers oftentimes are easier to catch than their Chinook cousins, fishermen say, and they help keep boat ramps, tackle shops, restaurants and ports busy.

Coho stocks have recently been managed on a 12- to 15-percent exploitation rate for sport fisheries, Melcher said. Under the state’s management plan, when abundance is at a low level, ocean sport fisheries must be managed at an 8-percent exploitation rate.

The result?

“Certainly we’ll see less coho fishing in the ocean than we have in recent years,” Melcher said.
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