Predictions for a robust king salmon haul buoyed California fishermen assembled Wednesday for a preseason meeting with state and federal regulators, even if forecasts fell short of last year's projection.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has forecast 634,650 king salmon out in the ocean from the Sacramento River system's fall run, an index used each year to shape the season ahead.
That's more than 200,000 lower than the projection issued last year. But it's still good news for those who suffered through 2008 and '09, when stocks bottomed out and there was no commercial fishing at all.
The forecast was not affected by drought conditions that have stranded some spawning salmon in rivers and streams brought low by lack of rainfall because those impacts will likely be felt later, said marine fisheries biologist Michael O'Farrell.
"The long and short of it is we'll get a season, but it's not as good as last year," said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
"I think it looks like we're going to have a pretty good season," said Rick Powers, who captains a recreational charter vessel out of Bodega Bay. "I'm thinking we'll have as much if not more time on the water."
But the devil is in details still to be ironed out in the weeks ahead, as stakeholders on the Pacific Fishery Management Council establish season ground rules aimed at ensuring a future for chinook salmon stocks. The rules will dictate who can fish where, when and for what size fish.
The schedule for last season forced commercial trollers to tie up for large chunks of June and July, meaning they missed high season on parts of the North Coast, as well as the profitable July Fourth market, several said, though not all agreed.
From Point Arena south to the Monterey area, certain days were off-limits within the weeks when fishing was permitted. Size minimums shifted at times, as well.
This year's season will have to account for limits on harvest rates for Klamath River chinook. It may also take into account lower population estimates for 2-year-old fish, which would affect the size of adult stock three and four years out.
"The key is to protect the weakest stocks while allowing fishing in abundant stocks," said Melodie Palmer-Zwahlen, senior marine biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife Ocean Salmon Project, and a member of the fishery council.
Even with restrictions, close to 411,000 chinook salmon were caught along the California coast last year by commercial trollers and sports anglers, roughly half of them from hatchery stocks, according to wildlife agencies.
The commercial catch in California was valued at $23.6 million at an average price of $6.23 a pound, said Jennifer Simon, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But some in the crowd of close to 150 people expressed doubts that season regulations have any effect on the survival of the chinook population, given questions about hatchery and river management.
Chuck Cappotto, president of the Fishermen's Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, also urged council members to take into account the severe drought in California and what that means for successful spawning and future population growth.
"The thing that's important about this season is this may be the last good season for a few years," Cappotto said. "The drought has a tremendous impact on not only the sustainability of the salmon, but also on the sustainability of the industry."