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Worst salmon season in eight years projected in California

Deckhand Michael Wood, right, hands a salmon off to a passenger after a day of sport fishing on the "New Sea Angler" in Bodega Bay, on Monday, July 9, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

MARY CALLAHAN,

California fishermen are bracing for the worst salmon season in eight years, one so grim that many will likely sit the season out completely.

Years of drought and unfavorably warm ocean conditions that existed when this year’s potential crop of king salmon was young have reduced the adult population to the lowest level forecast since 2009, when projections were so pathetic both sport and commercial salmon seasons were canceled.

Some hope that abundant winter rainfall and last year’s welcome spring rains will help restore next year’s salmon fishery to something approximating full strength. But until then, “we have one more bad drought hangover year to work through,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

“It looks horrible,” said Bodega Bay fisherman Lorne Edwards, who may skip what would be his third season in a row.

The recreational salmon fishery opens to California sport fisherman on April 1 every year and would normally open to the commercial fleet May 1.

But it will be several weeks yet before the season schedule is set, based on complex modeling and statistical projections aimed at estimating the number of adult salmon waiting in the ocean for the signal to swim upstream and spawn throughout the intensively managed West Coast fishery off California, Oregon and Washington states.

Analysts weigh a host of factors, including the previous year’s landings, the number of adult salmon found dead after spawning and the number of fish set aside for Native American tribes to catch. State and federal biologists consider each distinct natural and hatchery salmon population and their historic distribution in the ocean to determine where and when sport fishers and trollers are allowed to drop their lines in a given year.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting this week and is expected to formulate three alternative schedules for both sport and commercial salmon fishing within the coming week, McManus said. A final decision would be made between April 6 and 11.

But, already, the commercial fleet — still smarting from consecutive disruptions in both the salmon and Dungeness crab seasons — is anticipating drastic cuts in the salmon season, especially in waters north of Sonoma County.

State and federal biologists this year estimate about 230,700 adult Sacramento River fall run Chinook salmon — which account for the vast majority of king salmon caught offshore from the greater Bay Area and the North Bay — are waiting out in the Pacific. The forecast would have been more dismal had salmon smolt from Northern California hatcheries not been trucked past drought-shriveled tributaries in recent years to aid the species’ survival, McManus said.

Last year’s pre-season forecast was only slightly higher, at 299,600, though that number appears now to have been optimistic, biologists said. The annual forecasts ranged between 634,000 and 819,000 over the five years before that.

The forecast is even worse for salmon runs north of Sonoma County. Analysts expect just 54,200 fall run Chinook from the Klamath River — a record low that equals a mere 28 percent of the 38-year average.

The decimated Klamath run would particularly impact fishermen on the North Coast, where some of those fish turn up, intermingled with Sacramento run Chinook.

“The season will be severely restricted, particularly north of Point Arena,” located in the southwest corner of Mendocino County, said Kandice Morgenstern, an environmental scientist with state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ocean Salmon Project.

“This year’s bleak. There’s no getting around it,” said Humboldt County fisherman Dave Bitts, who sits on the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Salmon Advisory Subpanel.

“It’s going to be a very minimal, patchwork kind of fishery,” Bitts said, “and I’ve already pretty much decided I’m not going to put the salmon gear on the boat this year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.