For the first time since 2007, commercial and recreational fishermen will be able to cast their lines for ocean salmon from the Canadian border to Mexico.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council approved seasons and quotas for chinook and coho salmon off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and California Thursday, as it completed a weeklong session establishing policy and seasons for ocean fisheries. The coast off California and much of Oregon has been closed to commercial fishing the last two seasons because of declining salmon runs.
The council's decision should bring some relief to an industry knocked down by the one-two punch of a dismal economy and dramatic losses in the once-healthy runs of Sacramento River Basin fall chinook - the large, flavor-rich salmon that is the cornerstone of Oregon and California coastal fisheries.
"This is nothing more than a token," said Zeke Grader, director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents about 1,500 individual members.
Coastal communities rocked by two years of closures to commercial salmon fishing have received $170 million in federal disaster relief to help deal with the losses.
"Fishing is a gamble," said Jeff Reeves, a fisherman from Charleston, and a member of the Oregon Salmon Commission, speaking by cell phone as he pulled in crab pots. "But this is as bad as it's gotten."
The most dramatic losses have been in the Sacramento River Basin, which has seen its numbers plummet from 769,868 returning chinook in 2002 to a record-low 39,500 fall chinook last year. The management council predicts 245,000 fall-run chinook will return this year.
Many in the fishing industry blame the diversion of the Sacramento River to irrigate the San Joaquin Valley.
"California and Oregon fishing jobs are just as important as those agricultural jobs," said Paul Johnson, president of the Monterey Fish Market, a wholesale and retail seafood company in San Francisco and Berkeley. "It would be criminal to lose something that is as spectacular as a wild chinook salmon to flood a cotton crop in the desert."
Despite the reduced numbers, commercial and recreational salmon fishing contributed $17 million to the West Coast economy in 2009, according to the council.
The commercial and recreational seasons for northern Oregon and Washington, which depend on Columbia River chinook stocks, will generally run from June to late September.
The recreational season for southern Oregon and California will run from April through early September.
Oregon's commercial chinook season will run limited days from May through the end of August and include a quota of 3,000 chinook from July 1 to Aug. 31 in southern Oregon.
California's commercial season opens coastwide for eight days in July. After that, it is limited through August to the Mendocino County area and carries a 27,000-fish quota.
Getting a chance to catch chinook again has raised hopes, especially in the small fishing community of Fort Bragg, Calif. For 40 years, the town of 6,000 has celebrated July 4 with the World's Largest Salmon Barbeque, a tourist draw that benefits salmon restoration projects. It has had to buy Oregon- and Washington-caught chinook the last two years.
This year, the 400 salmon will be locally caught, organizer Jim Martin said.