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Salmon fishing closure appears likely
Sacramento Bee


March 17, 2008

A complete closure of salmon fishing in California and Oregon this year appears more likely, as federal managers grapple with the hard facts.

The drastic proposal -- which would mean fresh local salmon would not be available in stores, restaurants or farmer's markets -- is driven by a dramatic decline in California's Central Valley fall-run Chinook populations. The total has dropped by more than 90 percent since 2002.

Meeting in Sacramento, the Pacific Fishery Management Council was told by its expert staff that even with such a drastic closure, only an estimated 59,100 Chinook salmon will spawn this fall in California's Central Valley rivers, including the Sacramento, American and Feather.

That low number is well below the minimum conservation goal of 122,000 fish, leaving officials with few options.

All fishing south of Point Falcon in Oregon could be affected -- including commercial and recreational, in the ocean and rivers -- which has never happened.

"There's no way you can divide up the fish available and end up with any kind of fishery," said Duncan MacLean, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay. "This whole thing sucks."

The fall run is the largest on the West Coast, underpinning a fishing industry worth at least $103 million annually.

Last year, the run saw its second-worst numbers in 35 years, surprising officials who expected average returns. No one is certain why the run is suffering.

The National Marine Fisheries Service blames poor ocean conditions, which may be caused by global warming. The service's experts believe this partly because other runs as distant as Canada and Alaska also declined.

But they refused to rule out other factors, including poor habitat in the Central Valley's rivers and the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"The ocean is changing and it's throwing us curve balls. That's the bottom line," said Pete Lawson, a research biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, he added, "things are looking strange. It could be freshwater. It could be the ocean. It could be both."

Fishing industry representatives presented three options for the 2008 season, which begins May 1 in most areas.

Commercial representatives included one option that closes all fishing from Cape Falcon to the Mexican border. Others include catch limits and shorter seasons.

As a survival measure, one option allows fishermen to participate in a research project. They would be paid by the federal government to catch salmon to collect genetic data, but the fish would have to be released alive.

Recreational interests refused to offer a total closure option and were chastised for it, both by their commercial fishing counterparts and by regulators.

The general feeling was that in a situation this dire, everyone should share the pain.

Marija Vojkovich, California's marine programs manager and appointee to the council, struck one of the recreational proposals from consideration and directed staff members instead to consider a full closure for recreational fishing.

The council will vote Friday on three options for the 2008 season. One will be chosen as a final recommendation at its April meeting.

State and federal governments then will impose that recommendation as formal fishing rules in the waters they control.

But those agencies may move as soon as this week to close certain areas. Recreational salmon fishing has begun near Point Arena, and other areas open this weekend, so closures may be needed to protect the Chinook population before the council's final vote in April.

Federal rules could force the council to call for total closure because the predicted Central Valley run for this fall is so low. But the service also could petition the federal government for an exemption to allow a very limited fishery.

Such an exemption, however, would require Cabinet-level action by the Bush administration and is considered a long shot.


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