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Trollers to battle fuel costs, weather

Salmon trolling gear aboard the F/V Frances, left, is ready for use Tuesday evening in Charleston while other boats, mostly salmon trollers, are docked at the inner harbor in the background. Fishermen have been getting ice and fuel and fixing their boats in preparation for the season opening again on Thursday. World Photo by Susan Chambers

CHARLESTON -- As the buzz of activity on the boats waned in the evening, local salmon trollers talked about the upcoming season that opens Thursday. Will there be fish around? With only today left to get ice, fuel up and get the boats in order, are they ready?

"We were pretty much ready when we got shut down," fisherman Jack Kirk, who runs the Dragonet, said Tuesday evening.

Like many salmon fishermen in southern Oregon and northern California, Kirk is bitter about the season closing during the prime fishing months of June, July and August. State and federal officials chose to eliminate ocean trolling during summer to protect returning Klamath River fish. The Klamath River fall Chinook are the fish on which Charleston trollers primarily depend, even though fish from most West Coast rivers mix in the Pacific during their ocean journeys.

Many salmon fishermen would have fished albacore this summer but they were dealt a weird and wacky weather pattern that kept the migrating tuna far out to sea and far out of range. Escalating fuel prices only made matters worse.

But the same combination of weather and economics could force similar uncertainty in the remaining salmon season.

The Chinook could be swimming in the same deeper waters as the tuna.

"I've heard stories," Hallmark Fisheries production manager Scott Adams said, "of (salmon) being caught further offshore than they normally would (be) -- on tuna jigs."

He chalked it up to another indication of a strange year in the seafood business, but at the same time he was considerably cautious about what to expect. High fuel prices are going to make it tougher for both fishermen and buyers to make a profit, especially if fishermen have to spend more time searching for and less time catching their bounty. Markets also are of concern.

Consumers still are hooked on wild salmon, but Kirk believes the industry has lost a bit of the market niche during the summer to the cheaper farmed fish. Retailers often sell farmed Atlantic salmon to complement the wild fish offerings or as the primary product wild king salmon wanes. Trying to get those consumers back may be a tough sell if the price is too high.

Some retailers are anxious to get as much salmon as they can.

Customers have been asking for king salmon all summer, said George Paynter, owner of Seahawk Seafood in Charleston.

"We don't have any in our freezer for winter," Paynter said.

Adams said he's called several buyers and other seafood traders in major cities on the West Coast, trying to get a handle on what buyers may want. But he's found few answers.

Already, there is a good supply of wild Chinook available. Columbia River gillnetters kept some of the wild markets open, but the volumes coming out of the river could have an influence on the price local fishermen and processors get for troll-caught fish.

"There's only so much of a market," Adams said. "If you buy a lot of fish and the market drops, it could hurt."

Another challenge to the fleet also could rest with Nature: the bulk of the fish already may be in the rivers or -- worse -- a dose of rain may trigger homing instincts for Chinook schooled near the river mouths and they could enter the rivers en masse. Kirk is hoping the runs are later in the year, giving fishermen a chance to recoup some of the income lost over the summer.

Bernie Michalke, general manager at Oregon Brand Seafood in Charleston, also is hoping for late runs.

"I really don't know what to expect. We have some fishermen going out and giving it a try," Michalke said.

Or, nature could toy with the fishermen directly.

"This late in the year, the weather tends to slap us in the face," Kirk said, noting trollers will be lucky to get in even 15 days of good fishing, even though the season is open for 23 days in September and again in October.

It's during those two months that the weather is unsettled, shifting from its summer to winter pattern. It could catch trollers off-guard.

"We have no choice. We have to fish the weather," Kirk said. "We have a lot riding on the next couple of weeks."




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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