GRANTS PASS, Ore. Federal fisheries managers are considering easing restrictions on catching Klamath River salmon to prevent a repeat of this year's near-shutdown of commercial salmon fishing on the West Coast.
If the Pacific Fisheries Management Council in November adopts a more flexible approach toward protecting the wild runs of fall chinook in Northern California's Klamath River, it will not have to conduct the last-minute emergency rule-making it did this year trying to prevent salmon fishing from being completely shut down off Oregon and California.
"This year was very painful," said Chuck Tracy, Portland-based salmon biologist for the council.
"There was a lot of uncertainty. We didn't know if we would have a season or not. This was just an attempt to put some reliability into the process."
Salmon fishing seasons are set each year with an eye on minimizing the harvest of Klamath River fall chinook, which have been struggling for years due to poor water quality and loss of habitat to irrigation withdrawals, dams, logging and mining.
As a result, ocean fishermen are not able to fully exploit the plentiful stocks of salmon from elsewhere, such as the Sacramento River, out of fear of injuring the Klamath River population.
Under its salmon management plan, the council faced the possibility this year of shutting down all salmon fishing sport and commercial along 700 miles of Oregon and California coastline.
Fewer than 35,000 Klamath fall chinook had returned to spawn in the wild for the third straight year, forcing the council to consider the move.
Instead, the council adopted an emergency rule that allowed sport fishing and drastically reduced commercial fishing from Cape Falcon, Ore., to Point Sur, Calif. But the process was difficult, Tracy said.
Later, finding that fishermen were landing only 12 percent of their normal harvest and lost $16 million, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared the West Coast salmon fishery a failure opening the way for federal aid to fishermen and related businesses.
If the more flexible process is adopted, fishermen will better know what to expect in the coming year, Tracy said.
The council is considering allowing fishermen to harvest between 5 percent and 13 percent more on four-year-old Klamath fish, which account for the bulk of the annual returns, as measured by a computer model.
Scott Boley, a salmon fisherman and seafood market owner from Gold Beach, Ore. and a former member of the council, said adopting the more flexible standard would help.
"It will not have any long-term adverse impacts on the stock," Boley said. "It does give you some additional flexibility to keep some fisheries going during this current crisis in the Klamath."
The Karuk Tribe, which harvests salmon after they swim up the Klamath River, opposes the change, said spokesman Craig Tucker.
"We think the current escapement (minimum of 35,000 fish) was established through good science," Tucker said.
"We don't want to see fishermen punished. Because it's not overfishing that is the problem. But at the same time we can't fish below the floor or there won't be any fish in the future."
Eureka, Calif., salmon fisherman Dave Bitts said he welcomed easing catch restrictions, but worried fishermen would not be able to return to their traditional March-through-October seasons as long as problems remain with the computer model that predicts when, where and how many Klamath fish will be caught in the ocean.
The model has been far off the mark the past three years, and rather than relying on the past 20 years of salmon returns, is now relying on the past three, when returns to the Klamath failed to meet the minimum, Tracy acknowledged.