Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Salmon Bounce Back, Season Prospects Good Fishermen having mixed results so far

By Terry Dillman

The 2012 commercial salmon season has weighed anchor, and prospects look good along the Washington, Oregon and California coasts.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said she has heard that fishermen venturing out between bouts of poor weather are “doing well,” particularly out of Newport, but also from Coos Bay. She’s “not hearing much” from the south coast, but fishermen out of Astoria “are landing some fish.”

In mid-April, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game set the 2012 ocean fishing season for salmon for their respective state’s territorial waters extending three miles from the shoreline. They mirror regulations adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) the first week of April.

Salmon fisheries in California and Oregon looked particularly promising, due primarily to good river conditions, and excellent ocean conditions, for salmon. Sacramento, Klamath, and Rogue River Chinook returns are expected to be significantly higher than during the past several years, and Oregon Coast coho also have a strong forecast; however, fishery alternatives are necessarily constrained to protect Endangered Species Act-listed Sacramento River winter Chinook and Columbia River coho stocks. North of Cape Falcon, returns look similar to last year.

Idled for most of the past six years, Oregon’s commercial salmon fishermen face the possibility of a much-improved 2012 salmon season.

Encouraged by predictions of plentiful overall salmon returns, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) on Wednesday announced three alternatives for managing salmon fisheries. The PFMC recommends management measures for fisheries off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Officials say salmon fisheries in Oregon and California “look particularly promising,” thanks to good river conditions and excellent ocean conditions for salmon.

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 tule chinook are “mixed, but overall above average.” Hatchery coho forecasts are slightly lower than 2011, while those for Oregon coastal natural coho is 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 quote 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. 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.”

On the Money
Despite the optimism, commercial fishermen might not 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.
After a poor 2005 season, 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.

“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.

But the best news centers on price, which Fitzpatrick deemed as “outstanding” at $6 to $7 per pound to the vessel. “Those who are going out there and are hard-charging are doing well,” she said. Still others are taking advantage of an ongoing research project, trolling for salmon and science simultaneously, gleaning data that could prevent the complete closures of salmon fishing that almost gutted the fishery itself during the past few years. The Cooperative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon (CROOS) project is a Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES) effort based at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

CROOS Control
This major salmon project re-launched in May 2010 after two years of a commercial fishing shutdown 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. Federal disaster relief money, federal appropriations, and Saltonstall-Kennedy grants help provide the funding.

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 and 2011 with full sampling seasons and a program expansion.

In 2010, Oregon State University (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.

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 ( Pacific FishTrax began last year 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.
COMES Superintendent Gil Sylvia called the effort “a great partnership between scientists and the fishing community.”

The project keeps many fishermen on the water, and the data they contribute is leading to new insights about salmon migration and behavior.

Fitzpatrick said they have 75 vessels under contract along the coast, with vessels available in Oregon, California and Washington.

“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.

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, including salmon.

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. By incorporating collaborative research efforts into everyday fishing operations, the project takes advantage of the knowledge and experience fishermen offer, while simultaneously improving fisheries science and management.
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.

Sampling for the 2012 season began May 1.

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.”

Terry Dillman can be reached at

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