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North Coast salmon season to be delayed into summer

Details of the coming salmon season are still being worked out, but it appears commercial trollers should expect to have an abundance of excess time on their hands over the next several months.

Gone are the days of commercial trollers heading out to open water to bait their hooks for king salmon in May or even, once upon a time, April.

Except for the outside possibility of a single week in June in some areas, the commercial fishery from Shelter Cove to San Mateo County this year won’t open until August under any of three scenarios still being considered for approval next month.

“I’m glad we had a crab season,” veteran Humboldt County fisherman and fishery adviser Dave Bitts said ruefully. “It’s bad.

“Traditionally 80 percent of the catch below Point Arena used to be landed by the end of July, so we’re really getting the dregs of the season,” said Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and a member of the council’s Salmon Advisory Subpanel.

The options are equally unfavorable for sports anglers, who traditionally would converge on the Sonoma Coast in mid-April amid huge, celebratory crowds eager to launch the season.

This year, chinook salmon are off-limits to recreational fishers until at least June 9 under the most liberal scheme, though it could be as late as July 1 or even July 21, depending on which alternative schedule is adopted by the Pacific Marine Fisheries Council during its April meeting in Portland.

“Economically, it’s tough,” said Rick Powers, captain of the New Sea Angler, a recreational charter boat that runs out of Bodega Bay. “There’s less opportunity and less days on the water, and it’s tough for charter boats and for commercial boats, because we’re trying to make a living doing it.”

The dismal outlook for the iconic North Coast fishery is a reflection of ongoing uncertainty about the state of anadromous fish stocks offshore California, many of them deemed at risk of extinction, according to researchers, thanks to climate change, human development, dams, environmental degradation and other threats.

Salmon species have been in trouble over the past few years, especially because of a four-year drought that exacted a heavy toll on several age classes for whom dwindling, freshwater streams were too warm and diminished for juvenile fish to thrive.

Survivors faced further challenges in the Pacific, given a period of warm, hostile ocean conditions.?Powers said ocean conditions this year couldn’t be better, while widespread abundance last year of 2-year-old salmon that should be big enough to harvest this year had most fishermen anticipating a pretty good season ?this year.

But fishery scientists, using complex modeling utilized each year to define and regulate the season, recently estimated a low abundance forecast of about 230,000 spawning-age Sacramento River chinooks out in the ocean, waiting for the signal to begin their final migration upstream to reproduce. The Sacramento River run is typically the most important source of fish commercially caught off the North Coast, stocking a fishery that brought ?$23.6 million into California ports in 2013, compared to half a million last year. The forecast helps fishery managers determine how many fish can be caught while leaving sufficient numbers to reproduce and sustain the species.

Klamath River stocks that are more heavily concentrated in southern Oregon and the northernmost part of California are in better shape this year than last, when no fishing was permitted in what’s called the Klamath Management Zone.

But both Sacramento and Klamath River stocks have suffered reduced three-year averages that put them below set conservation lines requiring fishery managers to draw up federally mandated rebuilding plans by next year.

In the meantime, the salmon population’s diminished status, as well as unexpected errors in recent modeling forecasts, have complicated an already complex process for regulating the sport and commercial seasons, said Peter Dygert, a fishery management biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations fishery division.

Legally, until the rebuilding plans are in place, the season can be designed to target existing spawning targets, Dygert said.

“In this case, however, you don’t want to just do the bare minimum because that’s all you have to do,” he said. “But in saying we’re trying to do something more for conservation, you’re left in this sort of relatively ambiguous position.”

Three public hearings are scheduled around the West Coast later this month so the council can take comment on the season options, including 7 p.m. March 26 at the Laurel Inn and Conference Center, 801 West Laurel Drive, Salinas. It is the only hearing scheduled for California.

Comments can be submitted by email to ?pfmc.comments@noaa.gov through March 30, or in person at a public hearing or the April 5-11 meeting at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel. The complete description of alternatives and more information is available at bit.ly/2IuV81p.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 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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