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Proposal calls for no Chinook season in OR/CAL

By Susan Chambers,  March 14, 2008, Coos Bay World Link

followed by Options set for salmon season

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The concept of no Chinook fishing opportunity in California and Oregon didn’t sink slowly into the consciousness of the West Coast sport and troll fleets.

It slammed into them like a semi truck doing 80 and hitting a concrete wall.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Frank Lockhart, the National Marine Fisheries Service representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, said Thursday night in Sacramento.

Lockhart referred to the ever-worsening events that continued to unfold after four days of hard work, ongoing computer modeling and plan revisions.

Federal fishery managers, faced with unprecedented low numbers of returning fall Chinook to the Sacramento River in 2007 and the numbers of projected 2008 returns even lower, warned fleets early in February that this summer’s seasons could be severely restricted or even closed. Still, fishermen continued to hold out hope for even a little bit — five fish a week, in some instances — of a season.

Council members and fishermen discovered Wednesday that even absent any sport or commercial fishing in California and most of Oregon, forecast returns to the Sacramento River would be only 56,200 fish. The minimum mnumber of fall Chinook required to keep the stock healthy is 122,000 fish; 180,000 at maximum. Spawner returns have been well above 180,000 for years — it’s a stock that has been considered stable and provides the most fishing opportunity for Oregon and California fishermen.

Then it crashed. Unexpectedly.

Normally, fishermen work with state and federal managers during the March council meeting to design three options each for sport and commercial fisheries that go out to the public for comment and input. The council then adopts one of those options at the April council meeting and the National Marine Fisheries Service draws up the regulations if it approves of the choice. NMFS also provides guidance to the council as it works on the process.

Already, one of the three options was “no fishing” across the board.

Lockhart’s additional guidance Thursday was clear and succinct.

“I think that going out with two or three options … that allow a significant impact on Sacramento fall Chinook gives the wrong impression to the public,” Lockhart said.

On one hand, it could give fishermen hope that there might be a ghost of a season. On the other hand, the public at large likely would disagree with any regulations that would allow a season on such scarce stocks.

Lockhart couched his comments in the form of suggestions for the council.

But the reality, as those familiar with the council process know, when NMFS provides guidance, it’s almost a given the agency will disapprove any deviation from its recommendation.

Klamath reflections

The dire situation this year isn’t unfamiliar to Oregon and California fishermen.

The Klamath River stocks crashed two and three years ago, but the Klamath run is smaller. It’s not key to the whole West Coast fishery. When fishermen in Northern California and Southern Oregon had no season, many traveled to the San Francisco area to fish, targeting huge returns of Sacramento Chinook.

In 2004 and 2005, some fishing was allowed, even though Klamath stocks weren’t projected to meet the escapement goals of 35,000 returning spawners.

It also is fairly common for the Klamath returns to be topsy-turvy.

“There was a little bit of risk to Klamath (stocks) to access the larger Sacramento run,” Lockhart said, noting that up-and-down escapement levels had been experienced before. “There was some confidence the stock would recover.”

Then he paused. The room, nearly empty of fishermen compared with meetings in the past, was quiet. The audience waited.

Two weeks ago, the chairman of the Salmon Technical Team, NMFS scientist Dell Simmons, held a briefing for agency folks, Lockhart said.

“He said, ‘This is the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire career,’” Lockhart said, shaking his head. “And now it’s worse.”

Lockhart pointed to 23-page document that contained the options fishermen, state fishery managers and scientists had worked on all day. Some of those options included 500- to 900-Chinook monthly quotas for commercial fleets in specific areas; other quotas were 1,600 fish per month. Others options included no quotas, but open fishing seasons of up to three full months and a few odd days in other months. Some options called for no fishing but a limited harvest to keep genetic studies going. Sport options included up to three months of fishing, with no Chinook quotas.

Fishermen and council members, still silent, knew Lockhart’s next words would be historic, fateful.

“I need to hear what justification there is for going forward,” Lockhart said of the proposals that would allow any fishing, any impacts, on a salmon run so far down that it’s unprecedented.

The options are too high, Lockhart said, suggesting the council consider no Chinook fishing for commercial fleets south of Cape Falcon — not even a harvest for genetic studies.

The next-highest option, option two, would be a commercial harvest for genetic studies only.

And the third option?

Something close to option two, but that’s still too high, Lockhart said.

“Nobody’s going to make a lot of money,” he said of the options that would provide fishing opportunity.

The situation was similar for the sport fishery, but without the genetic studies: No fishing, something a little more than no fishing — a coho season only, perhaps — and that’s it.

For any option that allowed salmon fishing, the National Marine Fisheries Service would have to write an emergency rule and justify harvests that could affect Sacramento fish. Genetic studies might be allowed under research, Lockhart said, but even that’s not likely.

“It’s not a slam-dunk,” he said.

The room fell silent again.

Council members shuffled papers, looking through pages for any hope.

“We’re not finding much wiggle room,” Idaho representative and Council Vice Chairman David Ortmann said.

More silence.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife representative on the council, Steve Williams, was stunned.

“I hoped we were in the ballpark here,” he said of the work he and other Oregon delegation members did during the week. “But we’re not.”

Regardless, after a night of work, Williams proposed small troll and sport Chinook seasons this morning.

 “I think it’s important to have those bounds,” Williams said.

Shock and dismay

“It’s about time somebody stepped up to the plate,” Charleston salmon troller Jeff Reeves said later in the evening.

Reeves said on one hand, it’s a relief to not have to try a squeeze anything out of a situation so dire it’s almost incomprehensible. On the other hand, he — and other fishermen — simply want to fish. It’s a job, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a rural-living career.

Denial among the fleet, which had been held closely for the first four days, disappeared.

Newport troller Bob Kemp usually is upbeat. He and other Southern Oregon fishermen survived the Klamath closure. He’s weathered rough days at sea. But nothing prepared him for the point-blank, no-fishing-in-Oregon-or-California proposal.

The Oregon delegation of sport and commercial fishermen, scientists and state managers met late Thursday to work on options for a coho-only fishery for the charter fleet. A dozen or so men sat at the table, making notes, offering ideas.

Kemp sat on the side of the room, mostly staring into space, not paying attention to the discussion.

Then he took out a notebook, borrowed a pen, and wrote in big letters: “2008 West Coast salmon harvest — TOAST.”

(Susan Chambers covers fisheries issues for The World. She can be contacted by calling 269-1222, ext. 273; or by e-mail at schambers@theworldlink.com.)


Options set for salmon season

By Susan Chambers, Coos World Link,  March 16, 2008

Council OKs three choices for review
National Marine Fisheries Service representative Frank Lockhart told fisherman, “We’re in uncharted territory.”-World Photo by Susan Chambers
  SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The room at the DoubleTree hotel in Sacramento was relatively empty when the Pacific Fishery Management Council considered the final three options for 2008 salmon seasons.

Most sport and commercial fishermen were anxious to catch their flights or drive home after a week that was filled, for the most part, with bad news.

Council staff packed up boxes and cartons while salmon scientists — the Salmon Technical Team — crunched numbers for the fifth day in a row.

The final push was an effort to predict what and how much impact any kind of sport and commercial season would have on Sacramento River and Central Valley stocks of fall Chinook salmon. Fishermen and state and federal managers met early in the morning to add one more proposal to the mix of three options.

Those three options included no season at all for sport and commercial in Oregon and California, south of Cape Falcon on the northern Oregon Coast; a commercial troll fishery that would take place only for ongoing genetics studies, complemented by a coho-only/non-Chinook-retention season on the sport side; and a limited number of fishing days for trollers and also limited Chinook fishing days for recreational fishermen.

Oregon Sea Grant Agent and salmon troller Jeff Feldner said that due to the limited options, genetic stock studies will be difficult to plan for this year.

“Anyone with any other opportunity is going to take it,” he said.

Still, despite the option of some fishing being proposed, fleets shouldn’t get their hopes up, council members warned.

“People should be aware that the chances of getting any fishery are exceedingly slim,” council member and West Coast Seafood Processors Association Executive Director Rod Moore said. “The National Marine Fisheries Service has made it clear we’re not meeting the necessary escapement goals on the Sacramento River. No matter how we shape our fishery south of Cape Falcon, we can’t do anything to increase the Sacramento escapement.”

Returning spawners to the Sacramento were at an all-time low last year and projected to be less than half the numbers needed to keep the stock sustainable next year.

Public meetings will be held in Washington, Oregon and California at the end of March or beginning of April to take public comment on the proposed options. The council will again meet for a week in Seattle to make a final season approval. Then the National Marine Fisheries Service must also approve it and put together a package of regulations regarding the specific seasons.

That leaves some hope yet — a thin, thin ray of hope — that a season may yet be possible.

“It will be important for fishermen and local communities to document the economic harm that will result from a zero season,” Moore said. “This will be the only way we can convince NMFS to allow a fishery this year.”

The afternoon’s long wait was preceded by an ad hoc group of commercial fishermen, sportsmen, tribal nations and environmental groups in the morning who held a press conference about the plight of the Sacramento salmon and other Central Valley species of fish.

Though federal scientists have said ocean conditions likely are the main culprit for poor returns of not just Sacramento but salmon in other rivers as well, Environmental Water Caucus members said that’s not the only problem.

Poor water conditions aren’t conducive to salmon survival in the Central Valley, coalition members said, and proposed simple solutions.

“There are practical, manageable common-sense ways to reverse the decline,” Dick Nesmith, facilitator for the caucus, said.

The group proposed reducing impacts of export water pumping and diversions; improving water quality on the delta and Central Valley streams; improving access to blocked salmon habitat; improving habitat in Central Valley rivers and streams by enhancing flows, providing cooler temperatures and restoring floodplains; improving hatchery operations; and providing effective governmental leadership.


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