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Salmon fishermen: Outlook seems grim, but let's talk

By Susan Chambers March 05, 2008 The World Link

Industry begins difficult task of developing options for the 2008 season
Charleston salmon troller Paul Merz talks with Charleston Ice manager Pat Houck from Merz’ boat, the F/V Joanne, during an early September 2006 fishing trip. This year, trollers are facing the possibility of another closure ��” but due to low numbers of Sacramento River fall Chinook.-World File Photo

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Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about poor fall Chinook salmon returns to the Sacramento and other California Central Valley rivers — and how that drop in abundance of those stocks could affect Oregon sport and commercial fishermen. The first part ran on Tuesday, March 4.

COOS BAY — Commercial trollers are accustomed to dire forecasts. They don’t like them, but they’re used to them.

In 2005, their season was gutted thanks to problems with the abundance of Klamath River fall Chinook returns. Southern Oregon fishermen had no season at all in 2006, again due to the Klamath problems. In 2007, the fish simply didn’t show up.

The season was a harbinger of things to come.

What fishermen saw on the ocean — or didn’t see — was the same as what scientists found when counting the numbers of returning Chinook to Oregon and California rivers: few fish.

“It looks grim,” Charleston troller Paul Merz said. Merz was one of many Oregon trollers who spent a lot of time and a lot of fuel searching for fish last year. “I don’t know that they can do much more than shut everything down.”

Still, there are several rumors circulating among California and Oregon sport and commercial fleets as fishermen try to make sense out of a pre-season scientific report that numbers more than 100 pages. Both fleets are trying to make business plans for the summer and fall, looking for any hint of a season or, absent that, potential federal disaster relief funds.

“We’re in a position we’ve never been in before,” Merz said.

Fishery managers agree. Low returns on the Klamath three years ago put the industry into a tailspin that resulted in federal funding helping Oregon and northern California fleets. But this is worse. Much worse.

“We’re three years into a marginal fishery at best,” Merz said.

The Sacramento River has such a record of high and relatively stable numbers of fish that it’s the workhorse stock on which managers depend.

The number of fish supported by the Klamath pales in comparison. Commercial seasons were constrained in recent years due to weak stock management: Even though Sacramento stocks were strong, the potential existed for trollers to catch too many Klamath fish. Therefore, harvests were cut back.

“In 2006, we had the terrible (Klamath) forecast and combined with that, we had near-record high Sacramento stock,” Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Curt Melcher said, noting the frustration among commercial fishermen who lost access to the robust Sacramento fish.

“This year the discussion is much different. We don’t have a workhorse stock,” he said. “It’s an easier discussion, but it doesn’t make it any less painful.”

The real pain comes from what fishermen saw on the water in 2007 and, as the realization sinks in to what trollers may find in 2008.

“Realistically, if they gave us a wide-open season, what good would it do?” Merz said. “The fish aren’t there.”

Impacts beyond the salmon fleet

“I think people who want to eat fish are going to buy fish,” Merz said.

Without salmon, some likely will accept substituting farmed fish. Others may choose Alaska wild salmon instead — but may pay a high price for it.

Several environmental groups have touted the benefits of wild salmon, and customers paid attention. In 2006, when there were much fewer wild fish available, seafood connoisseurs stayed loyal to wild fish, for the most part. Trollers didn’t have to fight for space in the cold case when their season returned in 2007 and their prices stayed high. Demand for wild fish didn’t drop as much as it had a dozen years ago.

“I think the markets are better protected than they were in the 1990s,” Merz said.

And having wild Alaskan salmon available wouldn’t be all bad.

“It’s a prestige thing,” he said.

It could keep wild fish at the point of sale and keeps marketing channels open for when Oregon and California fishermen can fish at full tilt.

Federal fishery managers say the economic implications for commercial, recreational, marine and freshwater fisheries could be substantial.

Historically, the average economic value of the sport and commercial salmon fisheries in California and Oregon have averaged $103 million annually between 1979 and 2000. Between 2001 and 2005, the average impact was $61 million a year.

Many tackle shops and gear stores recently purchased equipment for the upcoming season. It cannot be returned. Much of it could sit on the shelves, gathering dust.

Already, California lawmakers are beginning the process of requesting federal disaster aid.

Sport and commercial trollers in Oregon already are working together to come up with plans, absent a season. Historically, the two groups have worked well together in an industry often beleaguered by allocation battles.

“I’m concerned about the commercial fishermen, too,” Winchester Bay-based Strike Zone Charters owner Scott Howard said. “They have a right to earn a living.”

Howard also is deeply concerned about the immediate impacts to Winchester Bay.

Without groundfish, without opportunity to catch other species, he fears Winchester Bay could go from bustling summer tourist destination to waterfront ghost town.

Charter fishermen often consist of mixed parties, he said. A father and son may go fishing while the rest of the family is back at camp, for example. When they come to the area, they bring other people with them. They stay at the campgrounds, at local hotels. They eat in local restaurants. They shop in Reedsport and Winchester Bay.

“When people are planning vacations, they’re looking for destinations,” Howard said. “We’re a destination.

“Without fishing, we’re not.”

Staff Writer Susan Chambers covers fisheries issues for The World. She can be reached by calling 269-1222, ext. 273; or by e-mailing to schambers@theworldlink.com.
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