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On short notice, trollers react to likely salmon season limits


WINCHESTER BAY - Salmon troller Alvin Gorgita was moving gear and tools around on his fishing boat, the Ladee G, on Thursday.

“I'm getting ready for salmon season,” Gorgita said. “I'm fixing all the stuff we broke last year.”

The rough weather last year prevented many salmon trollers from fishing early in the season - “The wind started blowin',” Gorgita said - and federal regulations prevented them from fishing during most of the summer.

Word that this year's season may be cut shorter than last year surprised him.

Gorgita, a gregarious Portuguese man decked out in a red-and-black plaid workshirt and baseball cap, said he's fished salmon all his life. He bought the Ladee G a couple years ago and he's already put more than $5,000 into the boat to get it ready to fish.

“I don't know what we're going to do,” he said.

Gorgita's not alone. Fishermen are scrambling amid uncertainty: Some are trying to decide whether to risk using credit cards to get last-minute fixes done to their vessels; others are putting their plans on hold for a week or more until state and federal fishery managers determine how a season could be structured this year.

Charleston fisherman Jeff Reeves fishes the Gloria II, and though he's still got crab pots in the ocean, he's struggling with financial decisions.

“For any of us to get rolling, it costs quite a bit,” Reeves said.


Weather and use take tolls on boats. Putting off maintenance is risky, but many salmon trollers have done just that.

And more likely will.

“There won't be any magic pill for a season,” Reeves said.

The cascade effect of one unexpected and unfavorable season doesn't affect just the boats and the fishermen; it also could put pressure on other fisheries as trollers and sport fishermen seek refuge somewhere else.

“But there's nothing to expand into,” West Coast Seafood Processors Executive Director Rod Moore said Thursday.

When the king crab fisheries in Alaska collapsed in the 1980s, many fishermen put in stern ramps to haul trawl nets or added longline fishing equipment so they could target groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, a fishery considered underutilized at the time.

In contrast, most West Coast fisheries are stretched nearly to their limits. Switching to a new fishery has advantages but each option also has its own set of problems.

Commercial trollers could rig their boats to fish for blackcod, one of the groundfish species. A limited amount of blackcod is available to fishermen who don't possess groundfish permits.

Granted, the limit on how much they can catch is lower than those for fishermen who hold permits, but it could allow them the chance to make around $5,000 every two months.

The problem? Added effort could mean they catch all the fish alloted to the open access fishery too quickly. Instead of a few boats being able to fish blackcod through December, for example, twice the number of open-access vessels might be able to fish only until September.

Many trollers already opt to head farther on the ocean to fish for albacore tuna, and many more salmon fishermen and charter boat operators will try their luck on albacore this year, too.

Last year, many trollers who gambled on tuna fishing lost.

“They were so far out,” Gorgita said of the fish that stayed miles offshore.

Many of the smaller boats don't have the refrigeration to handle more than a day trip and when the fish are miles away, risking a trip may not be worth the price of a few gallons of fuel, especially during rough summer weather. Commercial fishing effort in albacore also is about at its limit.

Charter boats have fewer options still.

Many sport companies offer tuna trips but the weather is a hindrance. Fishing for nearshore rockfish would be a better option, at least when it comes to proximity to shore, weather and when the fish bite; but again, the problem comes down to the amount of effort: Rockfish stocks can handle only so much pressure.

It wasn't even two years ago that the Oregon sport rockfish season ended earlier than expected after recreational fishermen caught all of the available black rockfish, lingcod and cabezon allotment. More pressure in the fishery could prompt a déja vu feeling for many charter companies this year - especially since a recent yelloweye rockfish assessment shows that particular species in worse trouble yet.

Strike Zone Charters owner Scott Howard in Winchester Bay remembered what it was like in the early 1990s when salmon season was cut short - Winchester Bay was deserted, he said. And now, because of federal regulations, Winchester Bay charter operations can't fish for rockfish.

“It'll kill us again,” he said.

Howard, Gorgita and other fishermen and processors have counted on the March 15 opening for the past few years - and with the opening target date less than a month away and the question of being able to fish not answered yet, the industry is in a bind.

For processors, the question of timing for selling frozen inventory is acute.

“I got fish in my freezer,” Adams said. “Do I get rid of it or do I keep it because there might not be any around later?”

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal council charged with structuring the fishing season, will meet in Seattle March 5-10 - and council members likely won't decide until that Friday what the season will look like and whether to allow a March 15 opening five days later.

The notice is too short for businesses.

“It makes it pretty hard to presell any fish or get any (supermarket) ads,” Adams said.

Likewise, supply stores find it difficult to determine orders months in advance when decisions about the season are made within weeks or days of the expected opening.

Englund Marine Supply Owner Jon Englund said he relies on his years of experience in the business.

“We know that we're on a little downswing,” Englund said Wednesday, “and you try to guess the best that you can.”

Purchase planning often begins at the end of the prior salmon season, particularly for commercial gear, and orders often are placed in November.

“It's more specialized,” Englund said.

On the recreational side, the planning can be a little shorter but no less frustrating.

“There is no criteria to have a definite answer, because ... here were are, a few weeks away from the season and not knowing,” Englund said.

Of utmost concern to both fishermen and processors is the retail customer.

The salmon industry, not only in Oregon, but along the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska as well, has fought for space in the marketplace against cheaper fish - farmed fish; primarily, the Atlantic salmon that is grown in net pens and imported. Marketing efforts touting the benefits of wild fish have paid off: Consumers have been willing to pay more for wild-caught fish.

“In essence, it will destroy everything we've done in the last five years,” Adams said.

Portside Chef Alex Laygui said Wednesday that he'd just purchased six cases of wild salmon. He'd prefer to have the wild Chinook, but when it comes down to providing the dishes on the seafood restaurant's menu, he'll buy the fish from wherever he can, be it from Alaska or imported Atlantic salmon, if he absolutely has to.

The price on Atlantic salmon remains relatively steady, he said, and “it's available all year long.”

It's exactly that kind of stability and price that, in years past, pushed wild salmon out of the market.

But Laygui said he's determined to buy wild fish if he can. His recent salmon purchase will last him through March.

“I'm crossing my fingers and hope (the season) opens the second week of March or so,” Laygui said.




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

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