NEWPORT – For people who rely on the annual chinook salmon harvest each spring and summer, this season is already being considered a disaster.
Fishermen who make a living off the Oregon and Northern California coasts are well aware of the failing salmon industry, and the states’ governors and senators have made it official.
In Oregon, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have followed up on a request by Gov. Kate Brown to seek federal disaster funds involving the fishery, and California Gov. Jerry Brown and the state’s two senators have followed suit.
“This disaster declaration will provide a much needed safety net to keep fishermen in business, communities afloat and the industry open for business until salmon stocks are restored,” the politicians wrote earlier this month in a letter to Wilbur Ross, secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The West Coast’s commercial salmon industry has fallen precipitously over the last 10 years, with Oregon issuing four and California five disaster declarations since 2006.
A warming trend continues to affect the Sacramento and Klamath river basins where most West Coast Chinook are reared, and also the ocean waters of Northern California and Southern Oregon.
“During previous coastal salmon closures it has become clear how much the loss of salmon has impacted fishermen and their families, but also ancillary industries such as retailers, boat repair facilities and many others,” wrote Oregon’s senators and California’s Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
The disaster was declared under the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).
The chinook commercial season had a brief two-day closure last week, then reopened down to Florence on Thursday, June 15 for the remainder of the month as far south as Florence. But no chinook fishing is allowed along Oregon’s southern coast down to the California border.
Part of the problem is that the fishable area in Oregon has been greatly reduced, with this year’s closures resulting in a total ex-vessel value decrease of 63 percent from the 2012-16 average.
And California’s commercial fishermen are equally discouraged with a revenue of $5.3 million from last year’s landings, down from the $12.6 million averaged during the previous five years.
As a result, the Pacific Fishery Management Council cancelled commercial and recreational fishing seasons along some 130 miles of California’s northern coastline.
The council also ordered a season-long salmon closure from Oregon’s Humbug Mountain to Eureka, Calif., to protect the Klamath River fall chinook.
It also decided against allowing any salmon fishing this year out of the ports of Gold Beach and Brookings.
A bad year
Nancy Fitzpatrick, director of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said that so far the commercial and recreational chinook seasons continue to disappointing, especially south of Florence.
“It’s just not a good salmon year anywhere, though there’s some life around Newport,” Fitzpatrick said. “So, yes, we hope to get some funding support, first from Commerce and then Congress if it approves a bill to fund it.”
Early commercial numbers provided this year by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) included 7,369 pounds landed worth $83,000 during the first 15 days of April 2017, compared to 75,000 pounds worth $815,000 landed during all of April 2016.
Mark Newell, a fish buyer out of Newport who sells primarily to retailers in the Willamette Valley, agrees with Fitzpatrick’s assessment, “but there’s some fish out there if you really look for it. But mostly only around Newport.”
Newell said he bought “a couple of thousand pounds during the last few days, but it’s pretty slow … nothing like it used to be.” Most boats, he added, are only bringing in around 10 fish, “especially south of Florence, though one guy up here caught more than 200 fish in one day, but that’s rare.”
Newell said the lack of fish isn’t surprising because of the warm water.
“That’s only going to get worse over the next few months. But at least we’re landing some … they’ve closed down in California.”
For all salmon except coho between Cape Falcon and Humbug Mountain, the Oregon ocean sport season has no quota through October, while 18,000 fin-clipped coho can be landed between June 24 and July 31.
Throughout September, a non-selective coho quota of 6,000 will be allowed as far south as Humbug.
“I’m still buying,” Newell said, “because there’ll be some caught out there in that 10-to 40-mile bubble at a few good spots like Stonewall Banks and Haceta Head, at least until the water warms up later in the summer,” Newell said.
“The fish are only averaging around 14 pounds, so I have to buy a lot to make it worthwhile.”
No fish, no fishing
Eric Schindler, a fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), said the state expected a horrible recreational fishing season in 2017 “after the way things have gone for the last couple years, and so far that’s what we’ve got.”
He said the chinook landings along the central coast have been minimal, “mostly just a few on incidental catch when they were fishing for bottomfish.”
South of Cape Falcon to the California border, Schindler added, there has been a total of 682 angler trips all season with only 116 chinook landed.
“Part of that was because of a reduction in participation after the word got out that the fish just weren’t there,” he said. “There’s just a lack of interest.”
The all-salmon season (except for coho) will run through Oct. 31 between Cape Falcon and Humbug Mountain. but there’s a lack of interest at this point, Schindler said.
That area will draw some attention when the non-selective coho season opens south to Humbug between Sept. 2-30, though the quota is only 6,000.
North of Cape Falcon a fin-clipped coho season will be held from June 24 through Sept. 4, with a quota of 21,000.
“Hopefully, there’ll be some success when the sport coho season opens on the 24th above Cape Falcon,” Schindler said, “but it’s hard to be optimistic because of the results fishermen have been getting.”
Schindler said “a bunch of things” have led to the dwindling populations,
“Mostly it’s the drought in California and southern Oregon that has reduced the outlying smolts that survived the rivers and then migrated north in very warm ocean water,” he said. “There just not a lot of food out there.”
He said the poor ocean conditions also lead to an increase in the number of predators because of low water in the Rogue River to go along with the Klamath and Sacramento.
“All we can really do at this point,” Schindler added, “is hope that we turn the corner in 2020. Next season looks even bleaker, especially with a poor forecast for the Klamath.”