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Dire Situation of Sacramento River Chinook Run Results In Probable Closures

by Dan Bacher
Two of three options for recreational and commercial salmon fishing seasons adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) today in Sacramento would result in complete closures for the first time in history. The collapse of Central Valley chinook salmon that has spurred the proposed closures is largely the result of abysmally poor management of the fishery by the state and federal governments. Fishermen, Indian Tribes and environmentalists believe that massive exports of water from the California Delta by the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations are the main cause of the decline.
Report From the PFMC Meeting in Sacramento

By Dan Bacher

For the first time since commercial and recreational fishing began along the West Coast in the Nineteenth Century, salmon fishing off the California Coast and most of Oregon is likely to remain closed on May 1 when the federal fishing season would normally begin, due to the unprecedented collapse of Sacramento River fall chinook salmon.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), a quasi-governmental body that manages ocean and anadromous fisheries, today adopted three public review options for the 2008 salmon season off the West Coast.

Two of these will leave California and most of Oregon without a fishing season, while the other option will provide a very limited “token” season. Seasons for northern Oregon and Washington options are also drastically more limited than usual. The Council will select a final option at their next meeting in Seattle, Washington on April 6 – 12.

The PFMC on Wednesday closed or delayed the opening of salmon season in seven zones, including four recreational zones and three commercial zones. The recreational fishing season from Horse Mountain to Point Arena, open since mid-February, is slated for closure on April 1, while the recreational season below Point Arena, originally scheduled to open on April 5, will remain closed.

“The status of Sacramento fall Chinook has suddenly collapsed to an unprecedented low level,” said Donald Hansen, Chairman of the PFMC. "The effect on California and Oregon salmon fisheries is a disaster by any definition.”

“I do not think there will be any ocean fishing for salmon in California and southern Oregon this year,” forecasted Hansen. “If there is any fishery at all, it will be a minute one.”

To have even limited fishing, the Council will have to obtain an emergency rule from NOAA Fisheries. “We will have to weigh the risks to the stock versus the economic benefits to fishermen resulting from an emergency rule,” said Frank Lockhart of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. “This year is a particular challenge because of the Sacramento River chinook collapse.”

The return of fall run Chinook to the Sacramento River is projected to be 58,200 under the option with all salmon fishing closed and 52,400 under the option that allows small fisheries in specific areas. The run impacts the fishery primarily in California and Southern Oregon.

The minimum conservation goal is 122,000 – 180,000 spawning adult salmon. As recently as 2002, 775,000 adults returned to spawn.

“I think that we made the right decision in adopting the three options today,” said Dan Wolford, PFMC member and Coastside Fishing Club science director. “The stocks have reached an unprecedented collapse. I believe that recreational anglers will support these options to protect the future of Central Valley salmon stocks.”

The PFMC claims that the reasons for the sudden collapse of the Sacramento fall Chinook stock is “not readily apparent.”

“Ocean conditions have been poor, and there are a lot of things that can go wrong for salmon in freshwater, “ said David Artmann, Vice-Chairman of the PFMC.

However, fishermen point to massive increases in water exports from the California Delta in recent years as the key factor in the decline, accompanied by dams, increasing water pollution, poaching, unscreened diversions, habitat loss and other problems.

"There are many factors that went into our salmon decline, but none as significant as the loss of freshwater flows to the Delta and San Francisco Bay which are essential for maintaining the biological function of this estuary and sustaining native salmon and other fish populations,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, in a press conference held by a coalition of fishing, tribal and environmental groups at the Double Tree Hotel in Sacramento where the PFMC was meeting today.

"Our task now will be keeping our commercial and recreational salmon fishermen and business solvent while we focus on fixing the Bay and Delta, restoring flows and with them the fish,” Grader stated.

In my testimony today at the Council meeting, I said it was clear that the collapse of Central Valley fall chinooks wouldn't have occurred if the federal, state and regional governments had done their job of protecting salmon and their habitat. Although ocean conditions certainly played a role in the decline, I agreed with Grader that the most significant significant factor in the collapse is the lack of adequate freshwater flows into the Delta and San Francisco Bay. The massive increases in water exports in recent years coincide with the collapse of Sacramento River salmon and the collapse of the California Delta food chain. Many of the salmon never made it from the river into the ocean.

I urged the PFMC to exert all of the pressure they could to make the state and federal governments fix the problems, led by increases in water exports, causing the collapse. A good start would be for the Council to review the relationship between the Pelagic Organism Decline on the Delta and the salmon collapse, as well as the relationship between Bay-Delta Estuary water and forage conditions and ocean conditions. I believe that you can't separate ocean from Delta conditions if you want to restore Central Valley chinooks and other California Delta fish.

Meanwhile, the PFMC has requested a multi-agency task force led by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s West-Coast Science Centers to research about "50 potential causative areas" and report back to the Council at the September meeting in Boise, Idaho, according to a press release from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

For coastal waters off Oregon and California (South of Cape Falcon to the U.S./Mexico border), the options for commercial and recreational fishing range from no salmon fishing for Chinook or coho, to allowing a small fishery of coho off central Oregon and short seasons in selected areas for Chinook. As recently as 2003, fishermen caught as many as 944,000 Chinook and 84,000 coho.

The three detailed options adopted by the Council for the 2008 salmon season for public comment and a schedule for meetings seeking public comment will be posted on the Council’s web site,, in the near future.

As the Council was meeting, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oregon Governor Theodore R. Kulongoski and Washington Governor Christine O. Gregoire sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez requesting a fishery resource disaster declaration.

“If the fisheries are closed or restricted, those communities will experience economic hardship even more severe than the losses they endured after restrictions were imposed on West Coast ocean salmon fisheries in 2006 in response to the low abundance of Klamath River fall Chinook salmon,” the letter stated. “Hence, economic assistance will again be critical for the well-being of our fishing communities and states.”

The Klamath River, where a normal run is expected this year, should see much better fishing than normal, since the catch normally shared with ocean commercial and recreational fishermen will be allocated to in-river recreational fishermen. The allocation would be an estimated 17,900 fish under option one, 21,900 fish under option two and 22,600 fish under option 3.

The Klamath fish are split 50/50 between Indian Tribal (Yurok and Hoopa Valley) fisheries and recreational and commercial fisheries under federal law.
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