Salmon closure hits Winchester Bay hard
The whole Oregon coast will feel the pinch
of the broadest shutdown ever, but the sportfishing town is
particularly dependent on salmon
May 12, 2008 SCOTT LEARN The Oregonian
WINCHESTER BAY -- When Scott Howard was a boy, his dad ran
charter boats out of Winchester Bay, tapping his only son first as
a fish cleaner and, from age 15 on, as a deckhand all summer long.
His mom ran the Salmon Harbor Cafe on the waterfront, steps from
the docks and the metal tables where long lines of tourists and
sport anglers waited to clean their haul.
When he was older, Howard decided to run charter boats, too. Now
he has three of them, worth $160,000 total.
But this year, he has almost no salmon to catch.
The closure of nearly all ocean salmon fishing this year is the
biggest hit to Oregon's coastal sportfishing in at least 15 years.
Salmon are largely off limits for charter operators such as Howard
-- and for sport anglers who bring their boats to the coast by the
thousands, pumping millions of dollars into local businesses, from
motels to taverns to tackle shops.
All told, the state projects $22 million in losses to businesses
that support recreational fishing, mostly in coastal towns. And
that's on top of $23 million in projected commercial fishing
Howard, 44, feels the effects. "I'm still getting some calls and
traffic," he says. "But I'm way down. And the bills keep coming."
Chinook salmon returns in the Sacramento River are projected to be
far lower than normal this year, prompting federal regulators to
shut down salmon fishing on the ocean from Cape Falcon, south of
Astoria, to the Mexican border -- save for a small amount of coho
salmon recreational fishing this summer. North of Cape Falcon,
recreational salmon fishing is open but severely limited.
Winchester Bay will still draw tourists for prime crabbing,
clamming, RV camping, lake and river fishing, and to the Oregon
Dunes National Recreation Area. Like other coastal towns, it has
diversified its attractions, holding an art fair, a crab bounty
hunt, a car show and a chain-saw sculpting contest over the summer
to bring visitors to town.
But this year, when it comes to ocean fishing, the town is in a
particularly tough spot.
Last year, the state estimates, salmon accounted for less than a
quarter of the sport catch in Garibaldi, Newport and Brookings,
the other big recreational salmon ports in the closure area. With
salmon counts low, the main catch was reef-dwelling rockfish, also
known as red snapper, along with halibut and albacore.
The challenge for Winchester Bay, like Astoria and nearby
Florence, is that its rocky reefs are mostly farther out in the
ocean, beyond a 40-fathom line that is the cutoff for rockfish
restrictions. Regulators began to limit the rockfish catch in the
late 1990s because of concern about overfishing and depleted
stocks in deeper water.
Last year, Newport's sport anglers landed about 8,500 salmon and
nearly 70,000 rockfish. Winchester Bay's landed about 10,000
salmon, the state estimates -- and fewer than 100 rockfish. The
rockfish number is probably an underestimate, Howard says, but
it's a fair indication of the disparity.
"The places that are going to be hardest hit are places like
Winchester Bay and Florence," says Eric Schindler, who leads the
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's ocean sampling project.
"Really, that's what they do; they salmon fish."
Sportfishing groups and charter operators in other ports say the
pain of the closure is spreading.
In part that's because the negative news leads some tourists to
conclude that fishing is shut down across the board, increasing
trip cancellations coastwide. The Northwest Sportfishing Industry
Association says it's even hearing of closure-related trip
cancellations on inland rivers with healthy stocks.
The salmon closure also is likely to spur more pursuit of
rockfish, which could close that important season early if the
catch hits regulatory ceilings.
Trey Carskadon, government affairs director for the sportfishing
association, says his group has been trying to let anglers know
there are plenty of fish to be caught this year. The ocean
forecast includes sportfishing opportunities for rockfish,
halibut, albacore and, starting June 22, a coho salmon season that
will end Aug. 31, or earlier if a small 9,000-fish limit is
But the long-term trend isn't good, Carskadon says.
Concerns about depleted stocks on the West Coast are multiplying,
along with regulatory restrictions, even though the take from
fishing is much lower than historical levels.
"On the one hand, we need to be cheerleaders. There are good
fishing opportunities this summer," Carskadon says. "At the same
time, we have to let people know that the resource is broken.
These situations are becoming more frequent, more volatile, more
"Fishing all day long"
When Howard was a boy, at least a dozen charters operated out of
the bay. "I grew up salmon fishing all day long," he says. "When I
was a kid, all my friends would go to concerts and the lake all
summer. I never did that."
Winchester Bay, where the Umpqua River meets the Pacific, is ideal
for salmon, the locals say. The fish are usually available around
the port's entrance buoys two miles from the dock, making for
short, successful trips that keep customers happy and bring
charter boats in quickly for the next load.
Howard and his wife, Casey, went into charter fishing after he
graduated from college with a business degree, then had to bail
out during the coho crisis of the mid-1990s. With jobs scarce on
the coast, Howard worked as a car salesman, then got back into the
business on rockfish, adding salmon when the restrictions
Chinook fishing took a strong turn up in 2001, though still well
below historical levels. Scientists were optimistic about
Sacramento River stocks. Then came this year's unexpected crash.
Howard figures he'll river-guide and ocean-fish in a smaller boat
with less overhead this summer, even though that brings in far
less revenue. He's let his skippers know they're out of work.
He wants to fish for a living the rest of his life, but he no
longer can sink the money into boats and employees that his
parents did, he says, "not with the uncertainty of the fisheries."
Effect on businesses
Salmon angler trips in the Coos Bay catch area, which includes
Winchester Bay, dropped from 97,000 in 1980 to 23,000 last year,
the state says.
"I almost feel ashamed that I'm in the shape I'm in," Howard says.
"I grew up doing it. My parents did it before I was born, and they
taught me everything they knew. I just haven't been able to
One of Howard's skippers, 23-year-old Alisha Hoile, will work in
her father's general store just off U.S. 101, where she expects to
see a drop in sales because of the salmon fishing closure.
Down the road, Kristy Benson, owner of Adrenalin Junkies Oasis
Restaurant & Lounge, has cut hours for her five employees and
fears she won't make enough money this summer to stay open next
Bill Karcher, owner of Sportsmen's Cannery & Smokehouse on the
waterfront (and Howard's high school science teacher), is hoping
for a strong albacore year, like last year. Otherwise, he says,
"we'll be devastated."
The Howards have one child, 9-year-old Alec. Alec's favorite thing
to do is fish, his dad says. But he also gets straight A's and
likes playing baseball and the guitar. They live in Reedsport,
four miles up the road and a great place to raise a child, the
Ideally, Howard says, Alec would go into medicine. "I just want
him to have a lot of choices. I'm doing everything I can to make
sure he doesn't follow in my footsteps."
Scott Learn: 503-294-7657; firstname.lastname@example.org For
environment news, go to oregonlive.com/environment