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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 losses.

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."

Rocky reefs

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."

Trip cancellations

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 reached.

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 widespread."

"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 loosened.

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 weather this."

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 winter.

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 couple say.

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; scottlearn@news.oregonian.com For environment news, go to oregonlive.com/environment

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