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Federal panel advises longer salmon season with fewer restrictions

A record run of chinook salmon is expected for the Klamath River basin this year, boosting the hopes of West Coast commercial and sport fishermen. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
A record run of chinook salmon is expected for the Klamath River basin this year, boosting the hopes of West Coast commercial and sport fishermen. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

By Samantha Young

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - A record run of chinook salmon is expected for the basin this year, boosting the hopes of West Coast commercial and sport fishers whose seasons were cut dramatically last year.

The forecast prompted a federal fishery panel to suggest Friday that restrictions on the West Coast salmon fleet should be eased for the 2007 season. That would bring to port towns in California, Oregon and Washington that depend on the commercial catch and recreational fishing, but not a full return to the abundance enjoyed in past years.

Even if the government allows more fishing this year, the health of individual salmon populations and the sheer number of different fishing seasons mean restrictions vary from region to region.

"It's better than last year, but we should be having five months of a full season," said Dean Estep, a commercial fisher from Fort Bragg.

He said he expects the fishing season along his pocket of California's North Coast to last from six weeks to two months, after being allowed to fish for five days in 2006. Even so, he said, he was frustrated that he would not be allowed the full five months of a normal salmon fishing season.

"Dockage, fuel prices ... everything goes up with the exception of our fishing seasons," he said.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council on Friday adopted possible management options that will allow a longer season for recreation and commercial salmon fishers in California and Oregon.

The season is expected to run between April and October, which is normal for the industry.

The news isn't as good for Washington, where fishery managers are forecasting fewer salmon for the 2007 season in the Columbia River. In addition, new protections under the Endangered Species Act will lead to a reduced season along coastal Washington.

The management council that met Friday makes its recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service. That body will issue a final decision about the various West Coast salmon fisheries in April in Seattle after public hearings in the three states.

This year's recommendations from the management council amounted to mostly good news for beleaguered salmon fishers. Last year, the federal government imposed the most restrictive salmon season on record for Oregon and California based on declining stocks in the Klamath River basin.

Commercial fishing was limited by as much as 90 percent along 700 miles of coastline from Northern California up most of the Oregon Coast.

The total West Coast commercial catch for 2006 was 12 percent of a typical year, representing direct losses to fishers of $16 million. That led U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to declare the West Coast salmon fishery a failure, but federal aid has never materialized beyond small business loans for fishers and related businesses.

The closure was forced by three years of poor returns to the Klamath River. Commercial and sport fishers complained they were hit unfairly by the restrictions, arguing that they were paying the price for dams, habitat destroyed by logging and mining, and poor water management.

This year, fishery biologists expect there will be more than 500,000 adult chinook salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to the Klamath River, about five times the number from last year.

Even with such numbers, commercial fishers are not likely to reap a bounty. Most of the returning salmon will be 3-year-old fish, which under federal guidelines must be thrown back because they are smaller than 27 inches.

The news is brighter for recreational fishers, many of whom run charter boats for tourists who flock to the coast during summer. They could return to a full salmon season in much of California and Oregon.

In Washington state, the preliminary forecasts for salmon returning to the Columbia River is 182,400 adult fall chinook. That would be less than 80 percent of last year's count.

Meanwhile, the number of salmon returning in 2006 to the Sacramento River in California was 435,000 fish. That was about half the previous season's run and the lowest number since 1992.

The decline was not severe enough to trigger fishing restrictions, however, because the population is still considered healthy, said Chuck Tracy, a salmon expert who works for the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The council will hold public hearings about its salmon-management proposals on March 26 in Westport, Wash., and Coos Bay, Ore., and on March 27 in Santa Rosa.

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