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ODFW: Zero salmon fishing is ‘not our recommendation'

By Susan Chambers, The World Link March 3, 2006 

World File Photo A salmon boat heads out to sea last year near Charleston. Fishery managers are considering three options in setting this year’s season. NEWPORT - Oregon sport and commercial fishermen crowded into a meeting room Thursday to get a line on what - if any - 2006 salmon seasons would look like. The information from state fishery managers was a mixed bag of good news and bad.

Yes, the seasons will be curtailed for both recreational and commercial sectors, but there will be some kind of fishing opportunity for Central and South Coast fishermen.

Despite forecasts that show dire circumstances to Klamath River fall Chinook returns even in the absence of all fishing - tribal, commercial and sport - Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Fishery Program Manager Curt Melcher told the audience several times that zero fishing “is not our recommendation.”

It's up to state fishery managers from Washington, Oregon and California to submit proposals to the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council next week in Seattle. Fishermen, too, can propose alternatives to federal managers, but Thursday's meeting also served to inform the fleets of the difficulty of balancing fishing seasons with laws mandating the conservation of the resource.

Melcher outlined the day's agenda by pointing out that there are both long-term and short-term considerations, but Thursday's task was short-term: What kind of season structure would allow businesses to get through this year?

Fishing options

A worst-case scenario would be no fishing, Melcher said, and though it's unrealistic, it has to be included in the slate of options for federal managers to consider.

Many commercial fishermen agreed that some fishing, any fishing, should be allowed during the summer so that markets could have a continuous supply of fish. Weekly openings around holidays proved problematic for some trollers last year because at least one opening fell on a three-day weekend. That doesn't make sense, one troller argued, because buyers weren't open on the weekend and had the opening fallen during the first part of the week, consumers would have been able to purchase salmon for the holiday.

Fishermen also brought up the problem of the “credit card fisheries.” The credit card fisheries take place in September and October, but the landings and any deliveries that include any Klamath River Chinook are accounted for during the following season.

Last year, there were significant salmon catches during September and October, Melcher said.

Jerry Reinholdt, a member of the council's salmon advisory subpanel, reminded fishermen that fishing in those two months is a gamble.

“If you choose to do a fishery in that timeframe, you're rolling the dice on what you're going to get hit with next year (2007). If you're worried about the following summer, take a hard look at the September/October fishery. Those fish are going to be somewhere in Oregon - and they get caught.”

Melcher agreed, but also said the credit card fisheries have benefits: Fishermen don't have to worry about the weather and can worry about the impacts the following year. If the weather's bad and there's little fishing, there's little impact the following year. But when the Klamath River abundance is low, credit card fisheries could pose a risk to the subsequent seasons. When the river's abundance is good, the credit card structure has worked well.

“It's a tradeoff,” he said.

Salmon advisory panel chairman Don Stevens, after spending days researching the issue, talking with fishermen and distributing information, proposed three options to take to the council next week:

n Option 1: a May 1-Aug. 29 fishery, with two weeks closures in July and August. The industry also could consider, forgoing the opportunity to fish in September and October, as well, he said, or think about limits of 100 fish per boat per week in September. Another alternative would be to consider limited state fisheries near the mouths of some rivers, such as the Nehalem and Nestucca on the North Coast - similar to the Elk River and Chetco fisheries that are open in November on the South Coast - that have no impact on Klamath River fish;

n Option 2: a season structured like last year's fishery, with the exception of having no March and April openings; or

n Option 3: no season at all. Urge the governor and the federal government to declare the fishery a disaster and request direct payouts to the fishermen.

“This is what the deal is: we want to fish or we want to be paid not to fish,” Stevens said.

Salmon commission

At an Oregon Salmon Commission meeting that followed directly after the ODFW presentation, trollers considered all the options, often straying into long-term considerations.

One of the considerations trollers must consider, Stevens said, is one of perception. If trollers push for a season during a year of low Klamath River abundance, the industry could be blamed for consequences to the overall population health of the Chinook.

In retrospect, the fewer returns both this year and last year have been attributed to low-water issues on the Klamath River in 2001 and 2002. Combinations of low rainfall, diverted water, parasites and disease have taken a toll on the fish.

But farmers who benefit from water diverted from the Klamath River and its tributaries may not see it that way. And that could have political ramifications later.

“You, as fishermen, did not cause the problem,” Reinholdt said. “It's the water issues on the Klamath.”

With the politics in mind, one fishermen suggested that perhaps the group should take a closer look at the zero-fishing option and instead, spend this year fortifying their political power to argue for disaster relief or a federal buyout for farmers or better river maintenance. The downside would be the loss of markets, he added.

Other trollers argued that they couldn't afford to take a season off. Salmon fishing is all they have.

After a pause, Reinholdt brought everyone back to the immediate task and repeated something Melcher said earlier in the day. Half the time the computer model for the Klamath fishery is right, half the time it's wrong, and that closing the fishery on such a risk is a real gamble.

“How do you win? I'm not sure there's a win here,” Reinholdt said.

Recreational seasons

Sport fishermen, particularly charter businesses, also are worried about perception.

Any news about the possibility of no salmon season that reaches potential customers inland has an immediate chilling effect on business - even if early speculation later turns out to be false or not as drastic as predicted.

Melcher said Central Coast recreational fisheries, those between Cape Falcon and Humbug Mountain, near Port Orford, have less effect on Klamath Chinook than commercial fisheries. Therefore, sport seasons likely won't be affected as much as trollers' seasons will.

However, “This year is a little unique. The dynamics have changed a bit,” Melcher said.

Options recreational fleets may consider include the no fishing option and a season just like last year, but also:

* a later season opening, after March, with a lower quota;

* opting for no season but also requesting disaster relief;

* a coho-only season; and

* variations according to a zones inside of 3 miles or 30 fathoms.

Casey Howard, co-owner of Strike Zone Charters in Winchester Bay, was in favor of a 3-mile zone if it were combined with a season similar to last year.

“If we had to have any option ... opening in March would help, if we could bring it in to 3 miles in the fall.”

The coho-only option would not work for businesses in Winchester Bay, she said. It would be similar to a situation in the early 1990s, when Strike Zone had to diversify into rockfish fishing. At that time, relief funds were available to salmon charters, but if the business diversified, those businesses got no funds.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider all the options for sport and recreational fisheries from all three states when it meets in Seattle March 5-10, and there is ample time for public testimony. The council's options will be published for public review until April, when council members will make final determinations at the council meeting in Sacramento.
On the Net: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: www.dfw.state.or.us;

Pacific Fishery Manage-ment Council: www.pcouncil.org
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