By MATT WEISER
March 21, 2006
For consumers, it means there may be no local wild chinook (or king) salmon in markets and restaurants this year.
For fishermen, it could mean bankruptcy, the end of a way of life.
"I hate to try and imagine how bad my life is going to get," said Larry Collins. He and his wife, Barbara Emley, are among the last commercial salmon fishers who still live and work in San Francisco. "I've been doing this 21 years, and I'm not really positioned to do anything else."
The prospect is even harder to bear because, this time, fishermen share none of the blame. And tragically, salmon overall are expected to be abundant this year, thanks to healthy runs on the Sacramento River and its tributaries, including the American River. These fish make up the vast majority of commercial salmon caught in the ocean off California and Oregon.
The blame falls, instead, on government and private interests who have failed to resolve their differences in just one corner of chinook habitat: the Klamath River.
The overall Klamath chinook population is expected to hit its second-lowest level in 20 years. Fish returning this year to spawn naturally are predicted to fall below a critical management threshold for the third year in a row.
Because these fish mingle in the ocean with Sacramento River salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service says a total ban on ocean chinook fishing is the only way to protect the few remaining Klamath fish.
The ban is proposed between California's Point Sur and Oregon's Falcon Point, a vast area where chinook represent a $150 million industry and the cornerstone of many local economies.
"Most of our boats that fish here, the primary income from fishing is salmon," said Mike Stiller, a commercial fisherman in Santa Cruz for 30 years. "It's part of the heritage of this state. You could live without it. You could live without grapevines, too. But it's part of the history and the culture of this state."
Stiller and other fishermen blame government officials for failing to solve the Klamath River's long-standing problems. The result could be the end of a commercial fishing tradition that, in some coastal towns, goes back a century or more.
Tony Anello and his wife, Carol Ann, own Spud Point Crab Co. in Bodega Bay, Calif. Crab is a significant part of the business, but half their revenue comes from salmon. Their son Mark is poised to become the fourth generation in the business after investing $150,000 in a boat. The season closure could end his hopes.
"We really worked hard to get our local wild king salmon in the marketplace, and now we're going to be just devastated," Tony Anello said. "It's all caused by the federal government, it's not caused by us, but we're the ones paying for it."
Many blame a Bush administration decision in 2002 to ignore its own federal biologists and divert more water from the Klamath River for farm irrigation. The decision put salmon in jeopardy as they tried to swim upriver to spawn.
An estimated 70,000 fish were killed that fall in stagnant pools on the lower Klamath by disease and suffocation - about half of them chinook salmon.
A 2003 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was the worst die-off in history on the Klamath, and possibly the entire Pacific Coast.
The report blamed the deaths on a combination of low water flows and a relatively large spawning run, which worsened the crowding and caused deadly parasites to spread.
Because those fish didn't spawn, fewer adults remained in the ocean two years later, prompting the National Marine Fisheries Service to abbreviate the commercial salmon season last year. Some fishermen say the decision slashed their income by 50 percent.
Last year, for the first time in its 30-year history, the Fort Bragg Salmon Restoration Association had to buy fish from Alaska for its "World's Largest Salmon BBQ," a fundraiser.
As Larry Collins put it, a "death spiral" has begun, both for chinook and the people who depend on them.
Only 24,000 fall chinook spawned naturally in the Klamath in 2004, followed by 27,000 last year. This year, fisheries managers predict 29,000 spawners.
Under federal rules, three straight years below a spawning objective of 35,000 fish triggers a "conservation alert."
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced at a meeting in Seattle on March 7 that it may be forced to close the salmon season to save next fall's spawners, even though they are only a small percentage of the fish caught commercially in the ocean.
The ban would apply to ocean sportfishing, as well, and a recreational fishing ban is likely on the Klamath River itself.
The Pacific Fisheries Management Council will make a recommendation on the closure at meetings in Sacramento in early April. But the council is only an advisory body to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which can impose the closure on its own.
The commercial salmon season normally begins May 1 in California, and April 1 in Oregon.
"We're trying to save what we can," said Scott Barrow, a senior biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, a voting member of the management council. "It's a huge economic and political decision that's going to have to take place."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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