Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Salmon Numbers Bounce Back

By Terry Dillman

Depending on who’s talking, 2012 could usher in a new era or the end of the world as we know it – bring transformation or cataclysm.

If anyone can understand how it feels to get caught between those extremes, it would be Pacific Coast commercial salmon fishermen.

Idled for most of the past six years, the fleet faces much-improved prospects for the 2012 salmon season. Encouraged by predictions of plentiful overall salmon returns, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) on March 7 announced three alternatives for managing commercial and recreational salmon fisheries. Officials say salmon fisheries in Oregon and California “look particularly promising,” thanks to good river conditions and excellent ocean conditions for salmon.

The PFMC recommends management measures for fisheries off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.
Fishery managers expect chinook returns in the Sacramento, Klamath and Rogue rivers at “significantly higher” levels than the past several years, and the Oregon coast coho forecast is also strong. There is a caveat: fishery alternatives are, they noted, “necessarily constrained” to protect Sacramento River chinook and Columbia River coho stocks on the endangered species list.

Still, Dan Woldford, PFMC chairman, noted the “nice rebound for California salmon populations and the prospect of good fishing in 2012.”

To the North
Fisheries north of Cape Falcon are expected to emulate last season, with an Oregon coho forecast of 632,700 fish – about equal to 2011. Although Columbia River hatchery coho returns were bigger than expected in 2011, fishery managers say they were still below average. Meanwhile, Columbia River chinook returns were generally lower than expected last year, but above historical averages.

Biologists anticipate about 742,5000 summer and fall chinook to return to the Columbia River compared to last year’s actual return of 684,400. The 2012 forecasts for the river’s total chinook are “mixed, but overall above average.” Hatchery coho forecasts are slightly lower than 2011, while those for Oregon coastal natural coho are similar to last year’s actual return and “the highest forecast since 1996.”

Washington coast coho forecasts are “generally higher” than 2011, but generally lower for Puget Sound.

The ocean sport fishery alternatives north of Cape Falcon in Oregon and off the Washington coast offer seasons akin to last year, with mark-selective coho quotas ranging from 54,600 to 71,400 (2011’s quota of marked coho was 67,200) starting in late June and lasting into September. Chinook quotas are 35,500 to 51,500 (compared to last year’s quota of 64,600). Two alternatives feature a mark-selective chinook fishery in June.

Commercial salmon fishery alternatives north of Cape Falcon feature traditional Chinook seasons between May and September.

Quotas for all areas and times range from 32,500 to 47,500 – higher than the 2011 quota of 30,900. Marked coho quotas are 10,400 to 13,600, compared to last year’s 12,800.

Chinook and coho quotas for tribal ocean fishery alternatives are 40,000 to 55,000. Last year’s quotas were 41,000 and 42,000, respectively.

To the South
“Biologists are forecasting four times more salmon than last year in the Klamath River, and an astounding 15 times more than in 2006,” noted Jennifer Gilden, PFMC’s communications officer.

Biologists estimate the ocean salmon population at 1.6 million adult Klamath River fall chinook, well above last year’s 371,100. That estimate derives mainly from the 85,840 two-year-old salmon (jacks) that returned to the river in 2011. “This is the highest of jacks to return since at least 1978, when recordkeeping began,” Gilden added.

Sacramento River stocks also show improvement, with a “conservative” forecast of 819,400 fall chinook, up from last year’s 729,000. Biologists expect at least 436,000 adult spawners in the river system, and the 2012 annual catch limit is at least 245,820 spawners.

“These returns are particularly important when seen in the context of the last several years,” noted Gilden. “Klamath and Sacramento stocks drive ocean fishing seasons off California and Oregon.”

Commercial chinook salmon season options for Oregon in the Tillamook, Newport and Coos Bay areas open April 1 and run through October. In the Brookings area, the season opens April, but only runs through August or September, with monthly quota fisheries starting in June.

For California, Crescent City and Eureka have quota fisheries in late September or are closed. At Fort Bragg, commercial alternatives open in July or August, extending through September. The San Francisco and Monterey areas open May 1 and go through September, with some closures in June. The south-central coast areas are open May 1 to September 30.

Research fishery alternatives allow collection of genetic stock identification samples in closed areas. Salmon caught in research fisheries must be released unharmed after the samples are taken.

Cautious Optimism
Despite the generally rosy predictions, a number of commercial fishermen don’t expect a silver lining in the black cloud that has hung over them for the past several seasons as they watched their livelihoods shrink to almost nil.

“Commercial fishermen have noted that because of the series of poor years, much of the capacity to fish commercially – especially in California – has been lost,” Gilden stated.

Since 2004, when Oregon’s salmon trollers landed 2.9 million pounds of fish, and 2005, when they hauled in 2.6 million pounds, they have endured a federally-declared disaster in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent 2009 season, a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, and a disappointing 2011, when fish were scarce, despite healthy forecasts. Fishery managers predicted much stronger returns of fall chinook and coho, opening the hatch to more sizeable commercial ocean salmon season that never materialized. Many fishermen ended up in debt or broke after gearing up for a season that failed to live up to the early expectations, said Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Lincoln City-based Oregon Salmon Commission. Others who don’t want to follow in their wake this season are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Eric Schindler, the Ocean Salmon Sampling Project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Resources Program, said he was among those who “were not exactly convinced” about the Sacramento River forecast last season.

The 2011 predictions, while up over the previous year, were still below average. “Even if they were right, nothing really materialized, anyway” he noted. “This year, chinook is definitely looking better. We’re looking at a very good year for chinook.”

Public hearings on the 2012 alternatives were scheduled for March 26 in Coos Bay and Westport, Wash., and March 27 in Eureka, Calif. The council also took public comment during its April 2 meeting in Seattle, with adoption of final recommendations tentatively scheduled for April 6. The National Marine Fisheries Service is set to adopt the 2012 regulations May 1.

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