Hopeful year for North Coast salmon fleet, but drought cycle looms

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The North Coast fishing fleet got its first glimpse this week of rules guiding the commercial salmon season set to start May 1, including more days on the water this year than last, reflecting a hopeful outlook for the catch this year despite grim a cycle set in motion by the statewide drought.

The schedule set for the Fort Bragg region, in particular, is far more generous this year, with the season opening a month earlier than in 2014 and dates that allow seven additional days of fishing split between June and July.

Only one fishing day has been added for the coastal waters that include the Sonoma Coast and Bodega Bay, home port to 40 or 50 fishing vessels.

“This year we kind of bet that there’s going to be a northern shift (in the salmon stocks) because of ocean conditions,” said McKinleyville fisherman Dave Bitts, a member of the salmon advisory subcommittee to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees coastal fisheries off California, Oregon and Washington.

The season outlines were predicted by a relatively optimistic forecast released in February for the Sacramento River fall run of chinook salmon, which largely determines the North Coast harvest. Analysts predict about 652,000 adult chinook are waiting off the coast this year, about 18 percent more than are believed to have been in the ocean a year ago.

Any satisfaction with the current forecast, however, is somewhat overshadowed by concerns about the future, when adult salmon populations will more fully reveal the impact of three years of drought on spawning and offspring survival.

“This might be the last full season for four years,” longtime Bodega Bay fisherman Chris Lawson said. “We never do see what we call a traditional full season anymore, but this might be the most allotted time for we don’t know when. I can’t even say four years. I won’t know until it starts raining and fish populations come back.”

Low returns completely canceled the commercial catch off the California coast in 2008 and 2009.

Salmon spawn in cold, fresh water streams, and the fish have been struggling to survive in increasingly hostile conditions during the state’s prolonged dry spell. Low flows and high water temperatures imperil eggs and juvenile fish, and consecutive years with such conditions can threaten multiple generations of salmon.

Lawson said the fishing community anticipated extreme limitations on their efforts next year, so “this year you go fishing and make as much as you can, and next year you just tighten up your belt and hang onto your ass,” he said.

Commercial king salmon landings in Bodega Bay during 2013, the latest year for which figures were available, totaled more than 632,000 pounds worth $3.7 million — about $1 million more than the previous year, according to data compiled by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fort Bragg’s 2013 landings totaled nearly 1.4 million pounds, valued at more than $7.4 million, the state agency said.

As adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council during several days of meetings in Rohnert Park earlier this week, the commercial chinook season off the Sonoma Coast and San Francisco runs through all of May, from June 7 to June 30, from July 8 to Aug. 29, and through all of September.

In Fort Bragg, it runs through all of May, from June 15 to June 30, from July 12 to Aug. 26, and from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30.

Any fish caught must be at least 27 inches long.

The commercial dates are set for formal approval by federal fisheries regulators by May 1. The season for recreational salmon fishing began April 4.

The commercial schedule is based in part on ocean abundance forecasts for different salmon runs up and down the west coast of the United States and target numbers for protected adult fish that need to be allowed to make their way upstream each year to spawn and sustain the fisheries.

It also reflects a desire to spread fishing opportunities along the coast, Bitts said, taking into account price fluctuations and how best to allot access to the fish.

The expanded commercial season for Fort Bragg, for instance, opens that region to fishing for all of May, permitting those who fish in that area to benefit from what have been high prices at the start of the season, he said.

The more generous terms for the area also reflect the salmon stocks’ migration north toward the Humboldt County coast over the past couple of years, said Bitts and John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

“The question remains, where will the fish turn up?” McManus said. The sport season has been open nearly two weeks “and for the most part, the recreational fleet is still working to find the fish.”

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

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