North Coast salmon season expected to be most prosperous since 2014

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There’s some good news this spring for the Northern California fishing fleet, which is looking forward to more available salmon this season compared with recent years.

Local fishermen and women hope to get out on the water earlier, as well, perhaps by May 1.

“Guys are kind of excited, because it looks like we’re going to get more time on the water, so that’s a better chance at catching some fish,” said Lorne Edwards, a veteran fisherman of 30 seasons and president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay.

Restrictions remain inevitable, but the official forecast released last month suggests there are more spawning-age king salmon out in the ocean waiting to be caught than since 2014.

The key is getting the trollers out when the fish are around and with enough time to find them if it’s not obvious where they are at first, Edwards said.

Biologists from the California Department of Fish and Game have estimated nearly 380,000 adult salmon in the ocean from the Sacramento River fall run of chinook this year,

The highest forecast in the previous three years was 299,600 in 2016, though the models used in the calculations are imperfect, particularly in recent years.

The estimates nonetheless bode well for the salmon season, as they inform the decision- making that determines when sport and commercial fishing is allowed in various locations up and down the coast each year.

The commercial schedule won’t be known for a couple of weeks. Final deliberations are scheduled for next month during a weeklong meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Rohnert Park, beginning April 9.

As it does each year, the council will be choosing between three alternative schedules of varying lengths for the commercial fishery with starting dates for the management district that includes Bodega Bay of May 1, May 17 or June 11.

Each schedule also includes most or all of June, July and August. The most liberal schedule, starting May 1, also includes all of September, while the schedule that includes half of May also takes in half of September. The shortest season would exclude both May and September.

“We’re hoping for the best,” said veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello, whose entire family is invested in the local fishery as the owners of two commercial vessels and proprietors of Spud Point Crab Co. “It looks better than it has been.”

The Sonoma Coast district, known as the San Francisco cell, runs between Pescadero in San Mateo County and Point Arena on the southern Mendocino Coast.

The sport season opening dates already have been announced. They are Saturday, April 6, from Pigeon Point, just north of Santa Cruz, south to Mexico, and Saturday, April 13, from Pigeon Point to Horse Mountain, just north of Eureka in Humboldt County.

The commercial salmon season has long been a mainstay of the North Coast fishery, with king salmon running so plentifully in the region they were practically legendary.

But environmental damage, development, logging and demand on streams and rivers where the juvenile anadromous fish spend their first year has taken a toll on salmon stocks over the decades, along, more recently, with changing ocean conditions and years of record drought.

After chinook salmon stocks crashed a decade ago, resulting in complete closure of the fishery in 2008 and ’09, the fleet enjoyed a comeback in 2013, thanks to substantial rain in the winter of 2010-11 that allowed juvenile fish making the journey downstream to the ocean that year to survive, despite “being lousy swimmers” subject to predation or stranding if there is insufficient flow, said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

That year the commercial fleet landed an impressive 3.8 million pounds of salmon statewide, including 639,000 pounds in Bodega Bay valued off the boat at $3.8 million, and 1.4 million pounds in Fort Bragg with an ex-vessel value of $7.7 million, according to California Fish and Wildlife data.

That “was the last really good year,” McManus said.

Last year’s total statewide catch was about 900,000 pounds valued at $8.39 million.

The Sacramento River fall run of chinook, which supplies the bulk of the fish caught off San Francisco and the Sonoma Coast, technically remains in need of rebuilding because of three consecutive years in which too few fish returned upstream to spawn, missing mandated targets intended to ensure sustainability of the fishery. So even though greater abundance has been forecast that could allow more than the 73 days allowed in the local fishing district year, there will be some constraints to allow for increased spawner returns.

Concerns about several other salmon stocks, including the Klamath River fall run chinook and federally protected Sacramento River winter chinook and California Coastal chinook, could prompt regulators to impose additional restrictions.

But “we’re cautiously optimistic,” McManus said. “We got really good rain in the spring of 2017, and that greatly boosted survival of juvenile salmon as they were exiting the Central Valley at that time. These are the same fish that are now adults we could be catching this year.”

A public hearing on the alternative season schedules will be held in Ukiah at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Hampton Inn Grand Ballroom, 1160 Airport Park Blvd. Further information is available at pcouncil.org.

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

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