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Salmon season hangs in balance

The ocean salmon season off the California and Oregon coastline could be closed for the 2006 year due to low abundance numbers for the Klamath Basin. The Pacific Fishery Management Council will make a decision at its Sacramento meeting in April.

Historically, the Klamath Basin featured the third largest salmon run in the west after the Columbia and Sacramento Rivers. The Klamath has been in bad shape off and on through the last 30 years, especially in drought years.

The Magnuson Stevens Act mandated a minimum return of 35,000 spawning adults to the Klamath. If there are three consecutive years below this goal, the fishery will be declared “over fished” and a federal recovery plan will be instituted. In 2004, the return was 25,000 and 2005 the return was 27,000. So 2006 is a critical year for triggering the over fished designation.



There are a number of methods for predicting salmon runs. One way is to take the numbers of jacks (second year fish) in 2005 as an indicator for the run of three-year fish in 2006. Another indicator is the ocean abundance estimate based on sampling. Biologists estimate that currently there are 110,000 Klamath salmon of all age classes at sea compared to the estimate of 185,000 a year ago. If the angling rules for 2005 were carried forward for 2006 the return is predicted to total 18,700 fish, roughly half the requisite number. The best guess estimate if fishing is curtailed entirely, is a run of 29,000, up from last year but still short of the mark.

A major problem is that the salmon stocks from one basin will mix with fish from other river systems in the ocean. Currently, the Sacramento River salmon are doing well but they can not be distinguished from Klamath fish. Klamath fish can be found from below Point Sur up to the Columbia River. So whatever we do has to be an across-the-board ruling for the California and Oregon coasts.




In 2005, the commercial fleet off the Oregon coast was dramatically curtailed while recreational fishing was allowed to continue. I am sure that this helped, but it was not a cure. The problem is caused by factors in the Klamath River limiting wild reproduction.

However, 2002 was a bad year to be a salmon on the Klamath. In the spring, the downstream migration of the juvenile fish suffered big losses due to warm water bacteria. Again in the fall, the returning adults suffered huge losses due to warm water and heavy bacteria counts. Most salmon spend three years in the salt before returning. Some fish come back after two years and some wait four years. The 2005 run showed the effects of the spring 2002 die off. This year is the return from the fall 2002 spawn. These events are symptomatic of water quality and quantity issues in the Klamath River drainage. Closing ocean fisheries will be treating the symptoms not the causes of the problem.

I do not have a solution to this problem. I understand the arguments for a curtailment of salt water salmon fishing. I also recognize that salmon boat captains could lose their boats if they cannot make the payments on them, to mention just one example of people who will lose if the fishing is halted altogether. I can confidently predict that salmon prices in the market will go up, if nothing else.

Not all the news is dire. The heavy rains of January are exactly what is needed to flush out the contaminates in the Klamath. A general rule is that if you add water you will get fish. This winter is setting up good water conditions for 2006. The other positive from dramatically reduced salt water salmon fishing will be much larger runs coming into the Sacramento River system this year.

It remains to be seen if there will be a creative solution proposed at the April meeting in Sacramento.

Denis Peirce writes a weekly column for The Union and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. He may be reached via e-mail at denisp@theunion.com


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