North Coast fishermen are optimistic an abundance of chinook salmon in the Pacific Ocean this year will give them more time on the water to catch the valuable fish.
"We will have more opportunity this year than last year, due to these predictions," Bodega Bay fisherman Dave Yarger said. "Conditions look like they should lead to a better season."
It would be welcome news for a hard-pressed industry that has only been allowed to fish for salmon one year out of the last three.
State and federal regulators on Tuesday met with Northern California fishermen to give an annual estimate of salmon in the ocean and begin the process of shaping the salmon fishing season.
Michael O'Farrell, a scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, estimates there are 819,000 chinook salmon in the ocean, based on the record number of two-year-old chinook salmon that returned to the Sacramento River system last fall.
The number of those returning young fish is used as an indicator of the ocean population and of how many adults will return to the Sacramento River the following year, which is the basis for setting the recreation and commercial salmon season.
The federal agency has set a requirement <NO1><NO>of 245,000 returning adults to the Sacramento in its salmon restoration plan for the threatened fish.
If the duration of the 2012 recreation and commercial seasons is set the same as last year, O'Farrell said he expects that 469,000 adults would return to the Sacramento, well above the required number.
Based on that forecast, <NO1><NO>there is room to expand the season, said Marija Vojkovich of the California Department of Fish and Game.
Last year, the sport season opened April 2 and the commercial fishing was allowed from May 1 to Sept. 30 and from Oct. 3 to 14. The commercial seasons were canceled altogether in 2009 and 2010.
O'Farrell expressed confidence in the ocean population estimate, but forecasts of the returning salmon the past three years have been inaccurate.
Scientists had predicted 377,000 adult chinook salmon would return to the Sacramento River and its tributaries and hatcheries last fall, but only 121,742 actually were counted.
However, 88,217 jack salmon, which are two years old and one year from maturity, returned, which is a record number.
Sport fishermen last year caught 49,000 salmon. Commercial fishermen caught 70,000 salmon, with a value of $5.1 million.
Representatives of the sport fishing industry told regulators that they would like to see the size limit reduced from 24 inches to 20 inches.
Commercial fishermen said they would like to see a season that is continuous and not broken into segments.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting Friday in Sacramento to begin discussions on the salmon season, which will be adopted April 6 at a meeting in Seattle, Wash.