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2007 season likely to be stronger than last year's

Even as fishing businesses struggle to stay afloat after a year with no salmon season, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Commercial fishers and sport and tribal fishermen are likely to fare better this coming season, with a prediction of abundance that's likely to free up fish this year and next. There are lots of 3-year-old Klamath River chinook salmon expected to be swimming in the Pacific Ocean, which may blunt the effects a prediction of a pitiful number of 4-year-old fish may have.

”We've got a much better projection this year,” said Wade Sinnen, a fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Sinnen said it is premature to speculate on how the fish will be divvied up between the various groups. But for Klamath River sport anglers, tribal and ocean commercial fishermen, it can only get better than last year.

Klamath River fishermen weren't allowed to keep a single adult salmon last year, despite the fact that fishing for 2-year-old jack salmon was good. Tribes got a minimum allocation of salmon. Commercial fishermen essentially had no season, even though Sacramento River fish were plentiful. Ocean sport fishermen had a shortened season.

This year, the Sacramento River fish are fewer, the lowest number predicted since 1992. So are 4-year-old Klamath fish, an important indicator for commercial fishing. But the record number of 3-year-old Klamath salmon may allow commercial fishermen better access to Sacramento River fish that are available.

Chuck Tracy with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council said it's too early to know just what the numbers may mean for commercial fishermen. Other limiting factors, like protected stocks of fish from other river systems, will play a role.

”It's clear as mud,” Tracy said.

A range of options will be developed by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council beginning in March. Fish and Game will also hear concerns regarding river fishing and ocean sport fishing on Feb. 28.

Jimmy Smith, Humboldt County supervisor and ocean sport fishing representative on the Klamath Management Zone Fisheries Coalition, said that he's optimistic going onto the management process.

”I know it's going to take a lot more work to come up with some options,” he said, “but I'm feeling much better than I did last year.”

The fishery is supposed to be managed to ensure that at least 35,000 natural spawning chinook reach the Klamath River in the fall. Last year, about 30,000 fish got to the river, significantly more than the 21,000 predicted would swim upstream. But it was the third year in a row that too few fish arrived to meet the goal, and that will trigger a review of how the fishery is managed.

This year, 73,000 natural spawners are expected to return, plus 63,000 hatchery salmon. Fish and Game's Sinnen said that means there will be fish available to catch while still meeting the 35,000 salmon goal.

Ken Cunningham with Ken Cunningham Guide Service in Klamath said the fall fishery on the river tends to make up about two-thirds of his business there. Last year's jack fishery was good, the longtime fisherman and guide said, but having adult fish available to harvest will help bring back people that stayed away last year.

”It's really getting the clients to come up,” Cunningham said.

Upcoming salmon meetings

Feb. 28 -- California Department of Fish and Game to review 2006 fishery and give overview of 2007 salmon projections. Humboldt Area Foundation in Bayside at 7 p.m.

Mar. 2 -- Fish and Game Commission hears comments on 2007 salmon regulations. Begins 8:30 a.m., Humboldt State University, Nelson Hall West.

Mar. 4-9 -- Pacific Fisheries Management Council meets to develop options for 2007 salmon seasons. Double Tree Hotel, Sacramento.

Mar. 27 -- PFMC takes public comment on salmon season options. Sonoma Wine Country Hilton, Santa Rosa. 7 p.m.

April 1-6 -- PFMC adopts management options. Seattle, Wash.

John Driscoll can be reached at 441-0504 or