[env-trinity] SF Chron- Fishing season will probably be cut in half to protect depleted Klamath River chinook

Tom Stokely tstokely at trinityalps.net
Sun Mar 13 21:06:08 PST 2005

Salmon prices expected to go up 
Fishing season will probably be cut in half to protect depleted Klamath River chinook 
Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer 
Saturday, March 12, 2005 

There are plenty of salmon in the sea this year, but commercial fishermen won't be allowed to catch many of them -- and that's going to mean sky-high prices for Bay Area seafood lovers. 

The Pacific Fishery Management Council issued three alternatives for the approaching 2005 California and Oregon salmon season in a meeting in Sacramento on Friday, and all basically call for slashing the commercial fishing season in half. The council will make a final decision by April. 

Fishing industry representatives say any of the alternatives will mean a $100 million loss in projected profit to California's salmon fleet, and stratospheric prices for wild salmon at the retail fish counter. 

Consumers should expect to pay well more than $15 a pound, said Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. Last year, the cost ranged from $9 to $11 a pound. 

The proposed restrictions are a result of exceptionally low returns of mature chinook salmon to the Klamath River system. Government agencies typically reduce salmon seasons if they determine there aren't enough fish returning to ensure adequate spawning for future generations. Excluding the rivers of Alaska and British Columbia, the Klamath and its major tributary, the Trinity River, are second only to the Sacramento River as a producer of West Coast salmon. 

Fishery management council members could not be reached for comment Friday. A voice-mail message at the federal agency's Portland headquarters said officials would not be available for comment until Monday. 

Fishermen are particularly frustrated by the proposals because the waters off California are teeming with salmon. The Sacramento River will have abundant returns this year, said Grader -- probably the highest since Shasta Dam went up in 1945. 

"Unfortunately, the Sacramento fish mingle with the Klamath fish out in the ocean," Grader said. "Even though most of the salmon out there are Sacramento fish, the council is concerned that too many Klamath fish could be caught during a full season." 

The consequences of an excessive catch of Klamath salmon would be an even more drastic decline in the river's base population of fish. 

Dave Bitts, a commercial salmon and crab fisherman from Eureka and vice president of the federation of fishermen's associations, said fishermen will get to fish only about half as many days and probably land fewer than half as many salmon as last year. 

Last year, he noted, California and Oregon fishermen landed around 500, 000 salmon. "This year, 225,000 fish would be a best-case scenario under the shortened season," he said. 

"The season usually runs from May 1 to September 30, but most of the fish are caught by the end of August," Bitts said. "This year, we'll only get to fish about 60 days from May through August from Point Arena to Point Sur, the prime fishing grounds." 

Fishermen may be able to troll around the Fort Bragg area north of Point Arena in September, Bitts said, "but by then many of the fish are already heading up the rivers." Fishermen should also have full-season access to waters south of Point Sur, but "salmon only head there in numbers in maybe one out of every five to 10 years," Bitts said. 

Grader said the restrictions come at a particularly inopportune time for commercial fishermen because wild salmon have made great inroads in the seafood marketplace, and prices are high. 

"People prefer wild salmon over farmed salmon because of health and flavor issues," Grader said. "West Coast fishermen have finally started making a profit catching wild chinook salmon. Last year they got $3 to $4 a pound, which is very good." 

Farmed salmon are Atlantic salmon, cousins of the five species of Pacific salmon but not native to the West Coast. Health concerns have recently been raised about farmed fish: Some tests have shown they have higher levels of toxic chemicals, such as PCBs, than wild salmon. 

Luis Zuniga, a worker at the Tides Fish Market in Bodega Bay, said the restricted season would have a significant effect on the local seafood trade. 

"People really wait for the wild salmon," Zuniga said. "We sell very little farmed fish here. The prices are going to be very high this year, but people will pay them." 

The best bet for salmon enthusiasts this year may be to take matters -- and rods -- into their own hands. Sport anglers will face some restrictions in the northern part of the state, but they should be able to fish freely from charter boats based in Bay Area ports. 

"The only trouble they could run into is if the fish migrate northward," said Bitts. "And that could happen. There's quite a bit of warm water out there right now, and salmon like cold conditions." 

Fishermen and environmentalists generally blame the meager Klamath salmon returns on low downstream flows from federal dams. Much of the water from the Klamath and Trinity rivers is diverted for agriculture. 

In particular, they point to catastrophic incidents in 2002, when low flows and consequent warm water were suspected in massive die-offs of both adult and juvenile fish. 

Chinook salmon typically follow four-year cycles. The fish returning this year to the Klamath hatched in 2002. 

But Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that controls the dams, said the dams are operated with healthy fish populations in mind. 

"All of our downstream releases adhere to biological opinions issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," McCracken said. 

Bitts said current flow schedules don't reflect biological realities. 

"We also had big juvenile fish kills in 2003," he said. "We're not going to fix this problem until we increase the flows down the Klamath." 

E-mail Glen Martin at glenmartin at sfchronicle.com. 

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©2005 San Francisco Chronicle 

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