By Terry Dillman
Commercial salmon fishermen off the Oregon coast are so far landing considerably more fish this season than they did in 2011 and 2010, but the results, while promising, are far from satisfying for stalwarts who have watched the fishery dwindle drastically during the past decade, the last several seasons in particular.
Idled for most of the past six years, Oregon’s commercial salmon fishermen entered the 2012 season riding another wave of anticipation, although their enthusiasm remained somewhat tempered in the wake of last season’s disappointment. As in 2011, the 2012 season weighed anchor May 1 with much improved prospects along the Oregon, Washington and California coasts.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) said salmon fisheries in Oregon and California looked “particularly promising” due mainly to good river conditions and excellent ocean conditions for salmon. Fishery managers expected “significantly higher” Chinook returns in the Sacramento, Klamath and Rogue rivers. While fishery alternatives were “necessarily constrained” to protect Sacramento river Chinook and Columbia river coho stocks on the endangered species list, Dan Woldford, PFMC chairman, noted the “nice rebound for California salmon populations and the prospect of good fishing in 2012.”
Despite the optimism, many commercial fishermen said they didn’t expect a completely silver lining in the black cloud hanging over them for the past few seasons. So far, 2012 is boom for some, bust for others, and while the harvest is notably higher than the past two years, the results have industry leaders seriously pondering the fishery’s future.
Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said fishermen venturing out between bouts of poor weather were reportedly “doing well,” especially out of Newport and Coos Bay. But the best news flowing from the early part of the season has ebbed. What Fitzpatrick deemed as “outstanding” to-the-vessel prices of $6 to $7 per pound during the early part of the season are now hovering around $4 to $5 per pound.
The most recent numbers available from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) show cumulative landings of 40,023 Chinook salmon from the five management areas as of August 12. That’s well ahead of the 27,778 and 36,138 landed by the same time in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
The Coos Bay (Heceta Head to Humbug Mountain) and Newport (Cascade Head to Heceta Head) areas are leading the way with 16,247 and 10,252 salmon, respectively. The Columbia River area (Leadbetter Point, Washington to Cape Falcon) is next with 6,567 salmon landed, followed by the Brookings area (Humbug Mountain to Point St. George, Calif.) with 4,448 and Tillamook area (Cape Falcon to Cascade Head) with 2,508.
While it’s a significant improvement, it’s nowhere near the fishery’s halcyon days of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, when 2,000 to 4,000 vessels plied the waters trolling for the Pacific Northwest’s signature fish species.
Fitzpatrick referred to the PFMC’s annual review of ocean salmon fisheries, which shows that the number of vessel owners with salmon permits has dwindled from a high of 4,314 in 1980 to slightly more than 1,000 in 2011, due in large part to fishery management efforts, most notably permit restrictions and salmon quotas. In 1980, 3,875 vessels landed salmon – the highest on record. Last season, just 302 vessels harvested fish.
The worst year was 2008, when only 138 vessels landed salmon in the middle of a federally declared disaster season.
Since 2005, commercial salmon fishermen have watched their livelihoods shrink to almost nil. A poor 2005 season preceded a federally-declared disaster in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent and equally disastrous 2009 season, a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, and a disappointing 2011, when fish were scarce, despite healthy forecasts.
In 1976, salmon fishermen hauled in almost 11 million pounds of salmon worth $14.7 million.
By comparison, they landed 499,000 pounds in 2006 valued at $2.7 million, 565,000 pounds in 2007 valued at $2.8 million, only 70,000 pounds in 2008 worth $494,000 and 146,000 pounds in 2009 valued at just $345,000. The numbers rose in 2010 (513,000 pounds worth $2.8 million) and 2011 (403,000 pounds valued at $2.4 million).
So the roughly 400,000 pounds landed so far this season – based on Fitzpatrick’s average of 10 pounds per fish – is a definite improvement, but nowhere near what’s needed to revive the fishery and keep it viable for those who once depended only on it for a living.
Fishery managers say salmon fishing has declined precipitously and stocks have dwindled due to a complex set of circumstances.
Fishery biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say adverse climate and ocean conditions that offered little food for salmon – along with too much dependence on hatchery-raised rather than wild-hatched salmon – triggered the 2008 collapse of the Sacramento River chinook, and the subsequent commercial season closure. That closure effectively gutted the West Coast commercial and recreational salmon fisheries, according to the PFMC’s postseason review of the salmon fisheries off the Oregon, Washington and California coasts.
NOAA officials estimated the loss of harvest in 2008 resulted in $60 million in lost personal income for fishermen and related enterprises. Gov. Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California pegged the combined economic impact due to the closure at $290 million.
West Coast fisheries in PFMC-managed waters – that is, ocean fisheries between the US/Canada border and the US/Mexico border from 3 to 200 nautical miles offshore – harvest mainly chinook or king salmon, and coho or silver salmon. The 2008 closure centered on the dearth of chinook numbers.
Based on Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network (PacFIN) data, only 194 vessels participated in the West coast commercial salmon fishery in 2008, down from 1,007 the previous year. The overall harvest (14,500 fish) plummeted to the lowest on record. Total ex-vessel value dropped to $1.2 million, again the lowest ever – 90 percent below the $11.9 million in 2007. The average per vessel inflation-adjusted ex-vessel value of salmon landings dropped to $5,300, half of the 2007 level. Ex-vessel value dropped 46 percent in Oregon, 33 percent in Washington and nearly 100 percent in California.
Income impacts for coastal communities are estimated per commercial pound and per recreational fishing day. They represent estimates – based on reported landings by area and other factors – of personal income associated with harvesting, processing, and “first level distribution activities” in the commercial and recreational salmon fisheries at the local community (county) and state levels.
Combined impact for all three states hit a record low of $6.9 million in 2008, well below the $39.9 million in 2007. The commercial fishery netted $1.4 million, down from $19.4 million the previous year, while the recreational fishery drew $5.5 million, down from $20.1 million in 2007.
Prices for ocean harvested Chinook were the highest on record, averaging $6.96 per pound, besting the previous highs of $5.43 in 2006 and $5.38 in 2007.
“One of the main reasons 2008 prices were so high was due to the extremely restricted 2008 fishing season,” the PFMC review noted.
Fishermen and owners of related businesses reeling from the closure already knew that, and their misery continued through 2009. The outlook and harvest improved considerably in 2010 and 2011, but last season fell well short of expectations.
Fishermen note that the harvest is up so far in 2012, but during September and October, they are limited to 100 fish per vessel per calendar week (Sunday through Saturday).
“If you don’t sell on Saturday, the fish caught count for the following week,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that unruly weather can foul things up for the fishermen, especially since “we’re the smaller boat fleet.” Most salmon trollers range from 20 feet to 50 feet, with only a few at 50-plus feet. “Lots of big boats have salmon permits, but they aren’t focused on salmon,” she added.
When the wind and waves rise, the smaller boats generally don’t go out. Safety is a key concern, and fishermen say the rewards these days don’t offset the risk.
Commercial salmon fishermen have become an endangered species themselves. Many of them are shunning salmon fishing and either turning to other fisheries to maintain their livelihoods or getting out of fishing altogether – an unpalatable decision for most of them. Newport-based fisherman Gene Law said he no longer goes after salmon. He currently owns two boats, one that fishes for Oregon pink shrimp and Dungeness crabs, the other seeks out shrimp and sardines.
Salmon fishing just doesn’t pay as well as other fisheries anymore.
“If it had not been for the disaster relief funds, we would have lost a lot more boats,” said Fitzpatrick, who has been with the Oregon Salmon Commission since its inception in 1989.
Others hooked into an ongoing research project, trolling for salmon and science simultaneously, gleaning data that fishery managers hope could prevent complete closures of salmon fishing in the future.
The Cooperative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon (CROOS) project is a Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES) effort based at Oregon State University (OSU)’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport. Re-launched in May 2010 after two years of a commercial fishing shutdown, the program is literally paying dividends in Oregon fishing communities, hooking some much-needed income for participating fishermen and the coastal communities where they live and work.
Started in 2006, the project originally focused on Oregon ‘s ocean salmon to determine where fish from specific rivers travel in the ocean, then switched to tuna as closures in 2008 and 2009 put a drag on the effort. It returned to salmon in 2010 with a full sampling season and a program expansion.
The collaborative effort unites state-of-the-art science with traditional salmon fishing know-how. The fishermen function as ocean researchers, collecting and recording at-sea data during salmon fishing operations, and clipping fin samples that scientists use for genetic testing.
As they catch salmon, the fishermen also log the time and location using global positioning system (GPS) technology, and enter the data through the Pacific FishTrax website (www.pacificfishtrax.org). Pacific FishTrax began in 2009 as a joint venture involving OSU, the Community Seafood Initiative (CSI), and long-time Oregon fishermen to help alleviate growing consumer concerns about food safety, quality and origins, and to allow fishermen to market a high-quality product at high-end prices.
In 2010, OSU researchers worked with colleagues in Washington and California, along with 200 commercial salmon fishermen (128 of them in Oregon). Project leaders say Oregon fishermen collected more than 4,500 samples.
COMES Superintendent Gil Sylvia called the effort “a great partnership between scientists and the fishing community. The project is helping keep many of the fishermen on the water, and the data they contribute is leading to new insights about salmon migration and behavior.” Sylvia said most of the money involved goes to fishermen, the project has “a proven track record” of creating and maintaining jobs on coastal communities, could help avoid full-scale salmon closures, and is a coast-wide collaborative approach to salmon management.
“This is an absolute win-win for fishermen, scientists, communities, and salmon,” said veteran Newport fisherman and Oregon Sea Grant specialist Jeff Feldner. “This type of collaborative project aims to conserve and sustain salmon populations, while balancing the important economic benefits that commercial salmon fishing operations bring to our coastal communities.”
The combination of scientific research and public outreach is designed to simultaneously get the word out about Oregon’s commercial fisheries, and strengthen wild fish runs, especially salmon.
“These types of projects allow us to demonstrate the innovations and improvements our commercial fisheries have made and will continue to make,” said Heather Mann, director of the Community Seafood Initiative (CSI), a partner in both project CROOS and Pacific Fish Trax. “By incorporating collaborative research efforts into everyday fishing operations, we are taking advantage of all the knowledge and experience our fishermen have to offer, and improving fisheries science and management at the same time.”
Other CROOS collaborators include the Oregon Salmon Commission, NOAA Fisheries, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The fishermen are sharing the data voluntarily because they want to improve the science and enhance the sustainability of the resource,” Sylvia said, noting that the project provides “innovative science” leading to real-time data that “more accurately reflects reality” for fisheries management, rather than using years-old information to make decisions.
Using genetic analysis, scientists say they can tell in near real-time the river basin from which the salmon originated, allowing managers to know whether or not the stock is considered weak under annually derived regulations. Ultimately, fisheries managers say they want to use this information in combination with other biological and oceanographic information the fishermen collect, to move the fishermen to areas of healthy stock during the season. Improved access to healthy stocks would allow commercial salmon fishermen to stay on the water and avoid the full-scale fishing closures that hurt everyone – harvesters, seafood processors, and the rural coastal communities that depend on fishing for at least part of their livelihoods.
Fitzpatrick said the project has already produced five years of fine-scale fish distribution data and fishing effort to support long-term ecosystem-based fisheries science and management. The primary objective, she noted, is “to prevent the kind of coast-wide fishing closures that have devastated the fishery, and enhance the economic benefits to the fishery and coastal communities that depend on it.”
Because salmon management is so complicated and complex, the jury is still out on whether or not these and other efforts are enough to salvage the fishery. One thing is certain: change is inevitable and the salmon fishery will never return to its former epic levels.
What Lies Ahead
“It’s an iconic fishery,” said Fitzpatrick, noting the history and “romance” as well as the generational aspect of salmon fishing. “These men and women decided that being on the ocean, being their own captain, being their own boss is what they want to do.”
Doing so is becoming more and more difficult.
Costs (moorage fees, insurance, equipment, fuel and more – “all the expenses of preparation paid out before you even put a boat in the water,” said Fitzpatrick) keep rising, market prices and weather fluctuate, regulations and restrictions change – usually becoming more onerous, and the ongoing debate between wild versus hatchery fish continues. To top it off, the fishery management equation - the way quotas and seasons are determined - has turned salmon into what Fitzpatrick calls “a credit card fishery.”
“Salmon is the most complicated and regulated fish in the Pacific Northwest,” she noted. “We basically catch fish on credit this year and pay for it next year (in reduced quotas or other ways).”
Fitzpatrick and her husband, Mike, began fishing in 1976, starting with a dory out of Pacific City. Much has changed since then, especially in the past seven years, much of it unfavorable to commercial fishermen.
This season might provide a change in the right direction.
The state legislature passed a bill this year to remove the cap on salmon permits (1,200) and eliminate the lottery system in place since 1991.
“Since 1992, not even half of the boats were fishing,” said Fitzpatrick. “If the numbers fell below 1,000, we had to open up a lottery to anybody to get the number back up.” The lottery hurt permit holders, since others could get permits by lottery for much less than the $5,000 to $10,000 it might otherwise cost.
“If we ever wanted a buyout – and I’m not saying we would – then we had to eliminate the lottery,” said Fitzpatrick. “Permit holders can renew every year, and if they don’t, the permit disappears. Under the lottery system, it didn’t disappear.”
The salmon commission’s focus is to get fresh wild caught Oregon salmon into the market. That means promoting high quality Oregon salmon to local restaurants, smaller retail stores and seafood counters – a strategy that is seemingly paying off. “It disappears fast,” Fitzpatrick said. “Buyers up and down the coast look for it.”
What the future holds remains uncertain. But for the third consecutive year, commercial fishermen are harvesting more salmon.
Terry Dillman can be reached at email@example.com.