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Salmon Population Crash Shuts Down West Coast Fishery

SEATTLE, Washington, April 10, 2008 (ENS) - The Pacific Fishery Management Council today closed the commercial and sport chinook fisheries off the coast of California and most of Oregon and will allow only a 9,000 fishery for hatchery coho only off of Central Oregon.

The council adopted the most restrictive salmon fishing quotes in the history of the West Coast in response to the unprecedented collapse of the Sacramento River fall chinook salmon population and the exceptionally poor status of coho salmon from Oregon and Washington.

The recommendation will be forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval by May 1, 2008.

"This is a disaster for West Coast salmon fisheries, under any standard," said council chairman Don Hansen. "There will be a huge impact on the people who fish for a living, those who eat wild-caught king salmon, those who enjoy recreational fishing, and the businesses and coastal communities dependent on these fisheries."

The council said in a statement that while it cannot explain why the fish are not returning, it is clear that overfishing did not cause the depressed condition, as the parent spawning populations were all above their escapement goal.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has suggested ocean temperature changes, and a resulting lack of upwelling, as a possible cause of the sudden decline.

Many biologists believe a combination of human-caused and natural factors will ultimately explain the collapse, including both marine conditions and freshwater factors such as in-stream water withdrawals, habitat alterations, dam operations, construction, pollution, and changes in hatchery operations.

The Council has requested a multi-agency task force led by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s West Coast Science Centers to research about 50 potential causative factors and report back to the Council at the September meeting in Boise, Idaho.

The Sacramento River fall chinook stock is the driver of commercial and recreational salmon fisheries off California and most of Oregon, the council says.

"The reason for the sudden decline of Sacramento River fish is a mystery at this time," said Council Executive Director Don McIsaac. "The only thing that can be done in the short term is to cut back the commercial and recreational fishing seasons to protect the remaining fish."

Small tributaries of the Sacramento River like this one are supposedly good salmon rearing habitat, but few salmon are expected there this year. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

"The longer-term solution will involve a wide variety of people, agencies, and organizations," said McIsaac. "But for now, unfortunately, those involved in the salmon fisheries are paying the price."

Salmon fisheries off California and Oregon typically have been large - involving seasons from May 1 to October 31 and average over 800,000 chinook caught per year from 2000 to 2005.

But this year, although chinook quotas in the area north of Cape Falcon in northern Oregon are similar to 2007 and chinook stocks are generally more abundant, depressed natural coho stocks are constraining access of commercial fisheries to the chinook salmon, the council said.

Sport fisheries, many of which depend on coho salmon, are even more restricted. Coho quotas are less than 20 percent of the 2007 season for non-Indian fisheries and about 50 percent of 2007 levels for treaty-Indian fisheries.

The closures south of Cape Falcon are due to a sudden, unprecedented decline in the number of Sacramento River fall chinook returning to the river this year.

The minimum conservation goal for Sacramento fall chinook is 122,000 - 180,000 spawning adult salmon, the number needed to return to the river to maintain the health of the run.

As recently as 2002, adult salmon numbering about 775,000 returned to spawn.

This year, even with all ocean salmon fishing closures, the return of fall run chinook to the Sacramento is projected to be only 54,000.

"The salmon fishing culture that has been a cornerstone of the coastal communities has reached a low ebb point in 2008 for the collective three West Coast states," said Mark Cedergreen, council vice chairman. "This was the responsible thing to do, but it will hurt."

In California and Oregon south of Cape Falcon, where Sacramento fish stocks have the biggest impact, the commercial and recreational salmon fishery had an average economic value of $103 million per year between 1979 and 2004.

The record low seasons are devastating news to beleaguered salmon fleets on the west coast. California and Oregon ocean salmon fisheries are still recovering from a poor fishing season in 2005 and a disastrous one in 2006, when Klamath River fall chinook returns were below their spawning escapement goal.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is online at: http://www.pcouncil.org

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.



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