Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Oregon Salmon, Pink Shrimp Success Continues

Predictions sometimes prove accurate, and the 2014 salmon and pink shrimp seasons off Oregon’s shores are good examples.

In February, salmon fishery managers said at worst, this season could mirror last year’s upturn, at best provide another step upward as the Oregon salmon fishery continues to chart a course away from a multi-year collapse.

Strong abundance forecasts for coho, as well as Sacramento River and Klamath River fall Chinook, anticipated great returns of Chinook salmon destined for key river basins of the Columbia River Basin on Oregon’s northern coast, the Klamath River Basin on Oregon’s southern coast, and California’s Central Valley pointed to good Chinook catches along the entire Oregon coast. Coho population level were expected at such that fishery managers said they “should provide the most time on the water for coho fishing since the 2010 season.” Northwest biologists predicted the largest fall Chinook salmon run since 1938, the year record keeping began. They said an “unprecedented” 1.6 million Chinook could return from the Pacific Ocean to the tributaries that make up the Columbia River Basin that, along with nearly 1 million coho returns, could lead to what fishery managers say would be “a year to remember” for both commercial and recreational salmon fishermen.

“This should be a great year to be out on the ocean,” said Chris Kern, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) administrator for ocean salmon fisheries. So far, it is.

“It’s going very well,” said Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission. “Catch and value has already surpassed last year by a long shot. We’re seeing some nice, big fish.”

As of mid-September, commercial fishermen had landed more than 1.7 million pounds valued at more than $11 million, with a fair amount of fishing left to do. Prices to the boat rose as high as $8 to $9 per pound in April, but have since dropped and leveled out, with an average price of $6.28 per pound through the first six months of the season. By comparison, they landed 1.3 million pounds in 2013 worth $7.6 million, and 745,000 pounds in 2012 worth $4.2 million.

“We’re definitely back up since the disasters,” Fitzpatrick noted. “Last year was good. This year is outstanding.” Outstanding, at least, compared to the doldrums salmon fishermen endured from 2005 to 2010.

Commercial salmon fishermen watched their livelihoods dwindle to almost nothing during those seasons, even the promising ones in 2011 and 2012 that didn’t really reach their anticipated potentials. 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, a disappointing 2011, when fish were scarce, despite healthy forecasts, followed by improved, but less than stellar results in 2012.

The cumulative economic effects during that stretch of poor salmon fishing opportunities were substantial, not just for the commercial fishery, but recreational, marine and freshwater fisheries and the communities that depend on them. Commercial salmon fishermen have lost much of the capacity to fish, and wishing and hoping had become standard gear.

Despite the significant improvement of 2013 and this season, 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. Harvests dropped during the early 1990s due to decreases in many stocks and concern for critical natural stocks under both state and federal management and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), along with escalating allocation conflicts between river and ocean user groups.

Fitzpatrick said the number of vessel owners with salmon permits 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. The worst year was 2008, when only 138 vessels landed salmon in the middle of a federally-declared disaster season.

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), 2012 and 2013.

This year’s season kept the upward trend alive.

Still, commercial salmon fishermen have become an endangered species themselves. Many 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. What the future holds remains uncertain, and no one is exactly sure what’s behind the back-to-back seasons uptick, since salmon survival and recovery depends on so many factors, most notably ocean conditions.

The ocean’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality makes it difficult for fishery managers to make accurate predictions, even in the best of times. But for the third consecutive year, commercial fishermen are harvesting more salmon, and this season is shaping up almost as predicted.

In the Pink
Oregon pink shrimp fishermen are seemingly in the middle of another gigantic season, landing good numbers as predicted by Bob Hannah and Steve Jones from ODFW.

No official numbers were available as of press time, but Jeff Boardman, skipper of the F/V Miss Yvonne, said things were “going really well,” especially in Washington waters, where “a considerable part of Oregon landings” were originating. “The Newport fleet is going up there,” Boardman added. “Oregon is not quite as good as it has been. Washington is going to set a record.”

The long-time commercial shrimper isn’t sure what’s causing the shift to Washington waters, although “they had good volume last year” and fishermen “run toward volume.” Fishermen also got a mid-season price hike.

The season ends October 31, and is seemingly on course to maybe match last year’s catch, according to some fishery managers and market analysts. Last season marked a three-year stretch of near-record production, said Hannah and Jones in their annual pre-season fishery review.

“They did it even with the season opener functionally delayed, as most of the fleet stayed at the dock for nearly three weeks due to price negotiations,” they noted. “Once an acceptable price structure was reached, the fleet still managed to put in 3.25 million pounds by the end of April. The price structure and high catch rates remained fairly constant through the season.’

That translated into 47.63 million pounds in landings in 2013, just 1.5 million pounds less than 2012. It capped the highest cumulative three-season landings total in the fishery’s history. Monthly landings were “far above average” in 2013, with May’s haul of 9.2 million pounds the best May catch total since 1989.

“Monthly totals remained high through the remainder of the season, showing a similar pattern to 2012,” said Hannah and Jones. Sixty-one vessels landed shrimp in Oregon ports last season, down from 64 in 2012. They made 1,017 trips compared to 1,024 in 2012. Average catch per trip was 46,833 pounds in 2013, a new record. Catch-per-trip numbers have risen steadily since 2004, and Hannah and Jones said those increases, especially from 2009 on “reflect the high shrimp abundance available, but also suggest that harvest and processor strategies may be at play.”

Average ex-vessel price in 2013 reached almost 51 cents per pound, just a fraction higher than 2012. Shrimp sold at 30 to 63 cents per pound under a four-tier, split-price structure. Overall ex-vessel value for the landed catch reached $24.2 million, down almost $533,000 from 2012.

“Shrimpers spent more hours fishing in areas off the central Oregon and southern Washington coasts than they did in 2012,” Hannah and Jones stated.

The season prospects “seem very good,” noted Hannah and Jones, “barring an unforeseen environmental shift that severely alters shrimp abundance or distribution.” Indications pointed to “widespread high shrimp abundance” along the coast, with conditions excellent for good hold-over of shrimp. They anticipated enough good-grade shrimp available early in the season (April 1-October 31) for shrimpers “to avoid potential count problems.”

Fishermen said this year’s numbers in terms of vessels and landings are following a trend comparable to the past two seasons, and they expect another stellar season overall.

They also continued their efforts to exclude eulachon smelt – listed in 2012 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act – from their nets.

A commercial fishery started in 1957, the Oregon pink shrimp fleet is considered one of the most consistently valuable commercial trawl fisheries in the state. Centered off the Oregon coast with operations extending from Washington to northern California, the 45-vessel fleet, ranging in length from 50 to 85 feet, works out of Newport, Charleston, and Astoria. Fished from the cold waters of the Pacific, Oregon pink shrimp are – compared to the larger species usually found in supermarkets and restaurants – the real “shrimps” of the shrimp world, with 100 to 160 whole shrimp comprising one pound.

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