Thursday, May 12, 2005
Although marine biologists predicted a record number of wild salmon in Monterey Bay waters this year, restrictions may prevent commercial fishermen from catching many of them.
Biologists and fishermen admit it’s almost impossible to precisely gauge fish populations, especially so early in the season. But according to an annual salmon forecast, the Pacific Ocean should be flush with Pacific salmon. Joe Duran, a biologist with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, says counts in the Sacramento River system, where most local salmon breed, indicated numbers as high as 1.6 million. In contrast, an ordinary season will see roughly 500,000 fish in local waters, he says.
Yet, despite the prediction for a bumper crop of wild salmon, this year commercial fishermen are restricted to just a fraction of their traditional fishing grounds. That’s because salmon stocks that originate in Oregon’s Klamath River are so low this year.
“They’re trying to lessen the impact on the Klamath stock by keeping the commercial fishermen south,” says Marc Heisdorf, a marine biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. “The further north they go, the higher the impact is on those fish.”
By limiting access to the salmon, fishery managers hope to protect the Klamath stock, which intermingles with the Sacramento River stock. Both salmon stocks traditionally coalesce north of Point Arena in Mendocino County during late spring and early summer before migrating south to Monterey Bay and points further south.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that the whole industry has to move down south,” says David Goldenberg of the California Salmon Council. “Because the Central Valley stock is so rich and abundant and they won’t be able to access them like they would without the restrictions.”
To protect the Klamath stock, commercial fishermen will be restricted to waters south of Pigeon Point in San Mateo County during May and then south of Point Sur in June. This means commercial fishing will be altogether banned in the Monterey Bay, as well as Half Moon Bay and San Francisco Bay, for the entire month of June.
From July 4 through August, the season will reopen from Point Arena south, and in September, it will be open south of Humboldt County’s Shelter Cove.
That may be too late for commercial fishermen. Many fishermen complain, and biologists concede, that a large number of the salmon will by then have already re-entered the Sacramento River—where most California salmon return to spawn.
To further complicate matters, commercial fishermen are also limited by new size restrictions. According to Steve Wendt, a fisherman who captains the Chaos, a commercial vessel out of the Monterey Harbor, fishermen can only keep salmon 27 inches or larger in May and September, and 28 inches in July and August.
As a result, commercial salmon fishermen are left feeling hamstrung and frustrated by the elaborate restrictions, especially since many feel the fishery’s current state of affairs is a result of poor resource management in Oregon.
“This is really unusual considering the circumstances,” says Tom Kanale, vice president of Santa Cruz Commercial Fishermen’s Association and a member of the Monterey Bay National Sanctuary Advisory Council. “They’ve sacrificed all this salmon down here to farm potatoes and alfalfa in the Oregon high desert.”
Here’s what happened: When the US Bureau of Reclamation diverted water from the Klamath River to farms suffering from the drought in 2002, huge numbers of salmon, as many as 33,000, were killed. As a result, the numbers of Klamath-spawning salmon in the Pacific today are dangerously low. To make sure enough Klamath River salmon survive to spawn, other Pacific salmon that mingle with the Klamath, including the Sacramento River batch, must be left alone.
Faced with the specter of dangerously low return rates, marine biologists and commercial fishermen were forced to collaborate on restrictions for the salmon season. As a result, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council voted to cut the length of the season nearly in half last month.
“It’s a shame, because the commercial fishermen have fought really hard to re-establish habitat and get numbers up,” says Kanale. “The most hideous thing is the government claims that it’s not a lack of water in the Klamath River, but that the water was too warm. Well, the water was too warm because there’s not enough flow.”
California Department of Fish and Game biologists agree that parasites proliferating in the water during low wintertime flows may have been the primary cause of death for the Klamath stock. The US Bureau of Reclamation has since diverted waters from the nearby Trinity River to compensate for irrigation demands, and biologists are optimistic that the Klamath stock can eventually rebound.
In the meantime, however, commercial fishermen fear the worst.
With the price of fuel hovering near $3 a gallon and prolonged “drive time” in search of fish due to area closures, many fishermen are choosing to forego the season altogether.
In fact, commercial salmon fishermen in Oregon and California have sought federal disaster assistance because of sharp reductions in fishing seasons they blame on the continuing water problems in the Klamath Basin.
Claiming commercial salmon trollers could lose up to $100 million from lost fishing opportunities this summer, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations called on the governors of California and Oregon to support a fisheries disaster declaration from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.
As for recreational fishermen, the geographical limitations don’t apply, a fact which irritates commercial fishermen like Wendt.
Chuck Tracy of the Pacific Fishery Management Council says commercial fishermen caught 469,000 fish last year and sport fishermen caught 197,000. This year, those projected totals, taking into account the restrictions, are 366,000 and 242,000.
Yet despite these predictions, local recreational fishermen continue to report very average catches for a year touted as record-breaking.
“We were anticipating, salivating over a fantastic season and it just hasn’t happened,” says Todd Arcoleo of Chris’s Fishing Charter in Monterey. “There’s no telling where these fish are. There are different currents that could push them out to cooler water. We have had some El Niño-type water, but geez, we should be seeing some fish.”
Marine biologists like Joe Duran, however, say it’s way too early to declare the season a disaster.
“It’s just far too early to get a picture of how it’s all going to play,” Duran says. “The numbers are still pretty green.”
Kanale is less optimistic.
“This is going to affect the fishery for the next couple
years unless there’s some kind of miracle,” he says.
The number of tourists who visited Monterey by cruise
ship in 2004.