Threat of Closing Jolts Pacific Salmon Fishing Industry
[Rachel's Introduction: "We know there are no fish," she said. "Fishermen always say 'better times are coming,' but I'm not so sure this time."]
The grim prospect of a total shutdown of ocean salmon fishing in California and Oregon is forcing anglers, merchants and food servers who rely on the once-thriving fishery to reassess their lives and futures.
So few fall-run chinook came back to spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries last fall that the Pacific Fishery Management Council said Tuesday it would have to ban all salmon fishing unless a request is made for an emergency exception.
By Wednesday, the news had cast a pall over fishermen and salmon lovers from San Francisco to Cape Falcon in n0orthern Oregon. Fisheries managers canceled early-season ocean fishing for chinook off Oregon, where commercial trolling had been set to open Saturday and run through April up to the Oregon-California border.
Even representatives of the salmon industry, who have made it a practice to lobby for more fishing, are saying that the situation is so bad it would be irresponsible for fishermen to put their hooks in the water even if the commercial season in California opens as scheduled in May.
"I think if we do have fishing, we're shooting ourselves in the foot," said Duncan MacLean, the California representative of commercial fishing, at the management council meetings this week at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento. "Frankly I'm scared, because what's happened here has nothing to do with harvest, but we're left holding the bag to fix it all."
MacLean and other fishermen blame drinking water managers for building dams, river water to farmers and agricultural runoff that they say has damaged the fishery, and the prospect of losing their livelihoods because of those things makes them angry. Others have blamed climate change and a deteriorating ocean ecosystem.
"I'm 57 and I've been doing this for 36 years, so it's hard to change horses in this stream," said MacLean, a well known veteran among salmon fishermen. "There's a lot of people in this industry like me."
The council is expected to come up with three options about what to do about the salmon fishing season Friday. A monthlong public comment period will be followed by a final decision the second week of April. One of the options will be to shut down the salmon fishing season before it begins, meaning commercial and recreational fishing would be prohibited. The other two options are likely to include some sport fishing and maybe limited commercial fishing.
Impact on the coast
The collapse will impact recreational and commercial fishing industries all along the Pacific coast. There are about 400 commercial salmon fishermen and women in California and about 1,000 commercial fishermen from Santa Barbara to Washington State.
Closure of the fishery would also eliminate fresh West Coast salmon from grocery shelves and restaurants and drive up the price of wild salmon. It would hurt entire communities in the Sacramento River watershed -- freshwater fishing in the watershed would presumably be included in the ban -- where fishing and tourism are a primary economic engine.
Barbara Emley, 64, who has run a commercial fishing boat with her husband out of Fisherman's Wharf since 1985, said salmon makes up about 70 percent of her annual income.
"We'll probably try crabbing longer, but if everyone shifts from salmon to crab, there will be more competition," she said. "I think we can survive the year, but I'm afraid it will go on."
If the crisis continues, she said, it could spell the end of a unique, nomadic culture of people who love the sea.
"It is like a town with pieces that break off and float around and then re-form in a different shape in another place," she said. "I think that culture is being lost."
Ben Platt, a 45-year-old commercial fisherman based in Fort Bragg, said he will have to turn to crabbing and other kinds of fishing to make up some of his losses, but he cannot sustain himself that way for very long.
"I'm prepared to weather one storm, but we've had severely restricted seasons since 2006 and we're looking at a total collapse of the Central Valley system," said Platt, who figures he will spend all of his savings over the next two years waiting for the salmon to return. "At some point fishing becomes no longer feasible."
The Klamath and Trinity river run along the Pacific Coast, much smaller than the Sacramento run, was declared a disaster in 2006 after a similar decline. It led to a dismal commercial and recreational salmon catch last year.
Restaurateurs and their customers are also looking at hard times if salmon season closes.
Chef won't use farmed
"We'll stay away from salmon for a while," said Ryan Simas, the head chef at Farallon Restauranton Union Square. "I will definitely not use farmed salmon."
Paul Johnson, the president of Monterey Fish Market, a high-end seafood wholesaler at Pier 33 in San Francisco, with a retail market in Berkeley, said things won't be the same without local salmon.
"Oh man, I'm telling you the king (chinook) salmon is the icon in the Bay Area; this is going to be devastating to the economy," he said. "It's put everyone on edge. A lot of small-boat fishermen are going to go out of business."
Johnson said his market might offer a limited amount of king salmon from Alaska and Canada, "but it's going to be brutally expensive."
Emley said most fishermen at the meetings this week appear to be resigned to their fate.
"We know there are no fish," she said. "Fishermen always say 'better times are coming,' but I'm not so sure this time."
The council's salmon management plan, which is part of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, requires the Pacific Fishery Management Council to close ocean fishing if the number of spawning salmon do not reach the conservation objectives set for the fishery.
The latest fall run count in the Central Valley watershed in 2007 was 68,101, well below the goal of 122,000 to 180,000. The number of jack salmon -- 2-year-old fish that come back early to spawn -- was the lowest on record.
Even if there is no fishing this year, the council is projecting that only 59,000 salmon will come back to spawn during the 2008 Sacramento River fall run, which peaks in September and October.
Knowing that, the council is expected to vote to close the season. It would mark the first time that the federal agency, created 22 years ago to manage the Pacific Coast fishery, will have banned salmon fishing, which was scheduled to begin for recreational fishers in April and for the commercial industry in May. Typically, the season continues through mid-November.
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