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Forecasters predict tepid salmon season off North Coast

The North Coast fishing fleet had been anticipating an underwhelming salmon season even before reports released this week revealed just how bad it could be.

Even so, it was a grim scene when more than 150 people, both those with fishing interests and wildlife agency personnel, gathered Wednesday to hear what state and national wildlife officials had to say about the outlook for California salmon stocks.

The bottom line: About 299,600 adult salmon are estimated to be offshore in the ocean this year - fewer than half of what analysts have forecast in any year since 2010, though the actual commercial catch last year fell far short of projections.

Past forecasts have been both higher and lower than this year's. But even veteran fishermen were downcast, particularly given last year's salmon no-show and a Dungeness crab season that has yet to start four months into what should have been a lucrative season.

“I don't know what to say about this,” said Dan Kammerer, who fishes out of Bodega Bay as captain of the Bernice. “It's going to be a mess.”

It appears there will be a fishing season - unlike in 2008 and '09, when a collapse of the fishery canceled the seasons completely.

But while the numbers out of the Sacramento River - which drives the North Coast ocean fishery - are low, assessments of endangered winter-run chinook and Klamath River stocks are even worse. State and federal experts said the estimates likely reflect the effects of drought on West Coast river systems, as well as unfavorably warm oceans. The assessments are expected to further limit where and how much fishing is allowed.

The fall Klamath River run was forecast at 142,200.

“I wish I had better news,” Michael O'Farrell - a fish biologist and salmon adviser with the National Marine Fisheries Service, told those assembled for the annual preseason salmon session in Santa Rosa.

The forecasts are based on a complicated formula that provides the foundation for discussions that will be held in the coming weeks by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the California Fish and Game Commission. The two agencies will develop regulations - including size and catch limits and fishing dates - for the sport and commercial salmon season that starts in April and May.

Limiting factors for the rate at which fishing is allowed include federal guidelines governing how many fish must be left to spawn, as well as tribal agreements that reserve a portion of Klamath River salmon for indigenous people to catch.

The process is imperfect. Last year's forecast appeared generally hopeful, for instance, estimating more than 650,000 adult salmon in the ocean. But less than half that number was later accounted for through harvest or spawning.

O'Farrell said this year's forecasting formula was adjusted to reflect last year's overestimation.

He and others also pointed out that conditions in the ocean have been anomalous and generally unfavorable to the salmon for the past three years - between two years of warmer than usual water, known as the “Warm Blob,” and, now, an El Niño weather pattern that is extending higher than usual surface temperatures. Overpredicting of salmon abundance also occurred in the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Niño events, biologists said.

Studies reveal low biomass of northern copepods and forage fish, like sardines and anchovies, and other indicators of low ocean productivity.

That may explain what happened to all the salmon that were thought to be offshore last year and were never harvested, O'Farrell said.

“Are these fish dying, or are they staying out there? I don't think anyone in this room knows,” he said.

The end result is clear, however: Fewer fish are available for struggling commercial fishermen this year, “and probably what you'll see is the price on the market for those fish will be higher,” state Fish and Wildlife spokesman Harry Morse said.

“You can't make a fish” said Stan Carpenter, president of the Fishermen's Marketing Association of Bodega Bay. “It would be nice if you could.”

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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