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March 3, 2005

Salmon Outlook Mixed: Drop in coho numbers offset by another huge chinook run

By Mike Stahlberg 
The Register-Guard

There's good news, bad news and worse news for ocean salmon anglers along the Oregon Coast this summer.

The good news is that the ocean is expected to be chock-full of chinook salmon bound for the Columbia and Sacramento rivers.

The bad news is that anglers along the south-central Oregon Coast may not be able to take full advantage of that bountiful return, due to the need to avoid catching too many fish from a depleted Klamath River population.

The worse news is that returns of hatchery-reared coho salmon are expected to plummet this summer. State and federal marine biologists predict 389,900 hatchery coho will return to Oregon hatcheries in 2005, a 40 percent decline from 2004's return of 634,600. The 2003 hatchery run totaled 952,500 fish.

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fish cleaning station

Fish cleaning stations at Oregon ports probably won't be as full of coho this summer as they were in 2003, when this photo was taken at Winchester Bay.

Ron Millikan and his big fish

Another big year for chinook salmon is expected in 2005, although most of them will be considerably smaller than this monster Ron Millikan hoisted at the South Beach Marina last summer.

Photos: Mike Stahlberg / The Register-Guard

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The expected decline is bound to lead to a reduced quota for coho and, in turn, a shorter season and/or other restrictions on anglers.

Just how the 2005 regulations should be shaped, given the low coho count, will be the focus of a public meeting today in Newport. The session begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Hallmark Resort, 744 S.W. Elizabeth St.

Hosted by the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, the meeting will begin with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists providing an overview of the 2004 salmon fishery and the 2005 coho and chinook salmon "abundance forecasts."

After lunch, those in attendance will try to develop a set of ocean salmon regulation proposals for ODFW staff to take forward to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets West Coast ocean fishing regulations.

The PFMC meets next week in Sacramento to draft its 2005 salmon season options.

Curtis Melcher, the ODFW's marine salmon fisheries manager, says "we haven't done any modeling yet," but in rough terms "it looks like the quota off the central coast is going to be down around half of last year's."

While the 2005 coho population is "going to be well below what we've seen the last several years," Melcher said, "I don't think we're in a situation where we have to take Draconian action a la 1994-98, where the season was entirely closed. I don't think we're there."

One reason Draconian action is not called for is that wild coho stocks - those that spawn naturally in Oregon coastal rivers and streams - are actually expected to increase slightly this year. In fact, the forecast calls for about 152,000 "Oregon Coastal Natural" coho, up 1,000 from the 2004 forecast.

The shortfall in the hatchery coho returns is attributed primarily to the "late" (returning) Columbia River stocks, which tend to turn northward toward Washington and British Columbia when they first enter the ocean, Melcher said.

"Early" coho stocks generally turn south, and those are expected to be down only 9 percent from last year. The "late" stocks are projected to drop by 72 percent.

Ocean conditions to the north were apparently less favorable for young salmon than they were off Oregon and California.

"The ocean has been productive for last four or five years," Melcher said. "Last year, however, the upwelling was not real strong, and there's a very strong correlation between upwelling and marine survival for coho."

For the management zone between Cape Falcon (near Tillamook) and the Oregon-California border, the PFMC in 2005 set a harvest quota of 75,000 adipose fin-clipped coho. The sport season opened June 19 and closed Aug. 31.

However, anglers fell far short of filling the quota, taking only 48,808 coho, or 61 percent of the allotment. (Another 84,141 coho were reported released - either because they were under the legal size limit or because they had an intact adipose fin).

The release rate may be even higher in 2005, given the expected increase in numbers of wild fish and shrinking numbers of hatchery fin-clipped salmon.

Coho fishing last summer was often slow out of some ports, but many anglers chose to instead target chinook, a somewhat larger species of salmon.

Marine biologists predict a banner year for chinook salmon in 2005. Another strong run of nearly 100,000 chinook is reportedly bound for the Columbia River, while a record 1.7 million chinook are expected to head for the Sacramento River. Portions of both stocks should be feeding off the central Oregon Coast during part of the year.

"We should be looking at a really robust fishery," said Eric Schindler of the Ocean Salmon monitoring project in Newport. Anglers last year saw huge numbers of chinook "shakers" (undersized 2-year-old fish that are shaken off the hook).

"Those will be showing up as 3-year-olds this year," Schindler said, "with most of those being in the 8- to 10-pound range."

The positive chinook outlook should ease the sting of the coho shortfall for many in the sport fishing industry.

"We're looking forward to a good season," said Chris Olson, owner of South Beach Marina and Charters in Newport and president of the Oregon Coast Sportfishing Association, which represents recreational fishermen as well as charter operators.

"Frankly, the customers don't really mind catching chinook over coho," Olson said. "Also, I think we might close the coho quota out rather than let it go like we did last year - and a lot of that was due to the fact that we caught so many chinook."


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young angler

Mitch Vance and Kathleen O'Malley with a coho in the net last summer off Newport. The coho salmon quota this summer is expected to be about half of last year's.

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Olson says he favors a later opening to the "selective coho fishery" season to give the available coho a chance to put on more weight before they are caught.

"I'd certainly like to see the season start in July and run as late as possible," Olson said. "And I think that opinion is shared by a lot of us.

"June is not a spectacular month for coho anyhow. July and August are the prime months."

In an attempt to make small quotas last longer, the PFMC has resorted to seasons that are open certain days of the week and closed others.

Allowing anglers to take just one coho per day (instead of two) is another option.

"I think it's going to be another great chinook season, as long as we get to fish on them," Olson said.

But restrictions are likely in the works for commercial and/or sport chinook anglers in Oregon waters, due to the problems being experienced by the Klamath River stock. If the same chinook rules as last year are used in 2005, says one PFMC report, the Klamath River will fall 10,000 chinook short of its spawning escapement goal.

That foreshadows a change of some kind in chinook angling regulations, but the specifics won't be known until the council issues its regulatory "options" next week.





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