On the brink of extinction

Guides and commercial fishermen say chinook salmon populations are too fragile to fish

Increased water exports led to the collapse of the local salmon fishery, so for two months of the year the Red Bluff-based Bill Divens moves his guide business to Oregon’s Rogue Estuary, which is where he caught the beauty pictured here.

Increased water exports led to the collapse of the local salmon fishery, so for two months of the year the Red Bluff-based Bill Divens moves his guide business to Oregon’s Rogue Estuary, which is where he caught the beauty pictured here.

Photo By Photo courtesy of Bill Divens

Salmon stats: Concerned about the salmon season? Contact the Pacific Fishery Management Council at www.pcouncil.org. Chinook and coho are the main salmon species managed by the council.

The recreational salmon season opened in the Pacific Ocean on April 3, but not all fishermen are thrilled about it.

Some are, notably the ocean-based recreational anglers who have waited through two years of West Coast salmon closures and are eager to drop lines again. But local river-fishing guides and many commercial operators along the California coast worry that allowing a harvest just months after the poorest return of fall-run salmon ever recorded in the Sacramento River is one ingredient more in a recipe for extinction.

Their concern is sound. The return of 39,500 fall-run chinook—or king—salmon to the river last fall marked the lowest return yet on a steady five-year freefall. It also proves that a modeling system long used by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, or the P-Council, of counting immature fish in the river and predicting the next year’s adult abundance on that figure is not to be trusted, say critics.

“Their model doesn’t work,” said Bill Divens, a river fishing guide and owner of Salmon King Lodge, in Red Bluff. “Last year, they predicted 122,000 fish would return, and we got 39,500. Now they’re saying a quarter-million are coming back in the fall [of 2010]. That kind of jump in abundance from one year to the next just doesn’t occur.”

Divens submitted a letter to the P-Council on March 8 protesting the possibility that the fishing season on chinook salmon would be extended for months more this year. Currently, the season is scheduled to close after April 30, though many fishermen expect an extension. Many other guides, party-boat captains and commercial fishermen agree with Divens that allowing fishing this year might damage the struggling resource.

Frank Townley, a veteran river guide based in Corning, said a few weeks of sport fishing in the ocean may not hurt anything, but he hopes that the P-Council, which is meeting in Portland this week, will indeed close the season at the end of April.

“It may be a good thing to fish the opener and give the sports guys a chance to fish and see what’s out there, and then I’d hope they shut it down,” said Townley. “The more fish we leave alone to come upstream and spawn, the more we’ll have in the next years.”

Since the April 3 season opener, recreational saltwater salmon fishermen off the Northern California coast have seen mixed results. Several boats in the Bodega Bay area have reported fast limits of two fish per person by mid-morning, while other boats fishing farther south, off San Francisco, have been entirely skunked, with not even a bite for boatloads of 20 and more fishermen—some of the worst salmon fishing in memory.

What degree of abundance this suggests is not entirely clear, but Townley, who doubts the efficacy of the modeling prediction science used by the P-Council, believes that a week more of angler reports could give fishery managers a fair idea of how many salmon are available to be caught. Such will serve as crucial information at the P-Council’s meeting in Portland, where options on the table include closing the season promptly or extending it into the fall, with a limited commercial season, as well. The verdict is expected to arrive today (April 15).

Craig Stone, owner of Emeryville Sportfishing Center, in the East Bay, said he hopes the season ends soon. He’s concerned that a heavy fishing effort through the spring and summer could halt or impair the species’ recovery. He said he is “extremely apprehensive” about the effects the current fishing may be having on the salmon population as the fish gather outside the Golden Gate, feeding and fattening in preparation for their migration upstream.

In Berkeley, party-boat skipper James Smith Jr., who owns the vessel California Dawn, is voluntarily bypassing the chance to fish in spite of high customer demand from sport fishermen eager for salmon.

“I’m not going fishing this year because I think it’s the wrong thing to do,” said Smith. “I think we should sit back for one more season to let the stocks recover and pressure agencies to reduce the pumping out of the Delta.”

In the previous two years of closure, commercial fishermen—including party-boat captains and local river guides—received federal disaster relief money to see them through a season of unemployment. This year, those anglers in favor of a fishing season have accused commercial fishermen opposing the season of hoping for more unemployment checks from the government. In Bodega Bay, retired commercial salmon fisherman Cark Koehler believes just this—that commercial fishermen are hoping for “free money.”

“With the subsidies they’re getting, it seems like these commercial guys and party-boat skippers have nothing to lose by closing down the season for another year,” he said. “They wouldn’t have to pay for fuel or anything. They could even get another job if they wanted. Most guys probably would do a little better on disaster relief than if they do go fishing.”

Townley denied such allegations.

“There’s no money this year,” he said. “The government’s broke. We’re not getting anything.”

Stone, at Emeryville Sportfishing Center, also denied any cynical intentions.

“Receiving disaster-relief funds is not why we question the fishing season this year,” he said. “We don’t even have any guarantee that disaster-relief money will be available this year. We’re worried about allowing a season only because we want a good return in 2010.”