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Anglers Argue for Salmon Fishing

Sport and commercial fishermen tell a U.S. panel that a proposed ban would pose an economic disaster for the California coast.

April 05, 2006|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Fishermen buffeted a federal advisory panel Tuesday with warnings that a proposed halt on salmon fishing this year would unleash an economic catastrophe on the coast.

During a daylong hearing of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, more than three dozen commercial and recreational anglers said a fishing ban would unfairly punish them for a problem they didn't cause: the sagging salmon runs on the beleaguered Klamath River.

"You could save all the salmon in the ocean, but they're going to die when they reach the Klamath River," said Scott Smith, a sport fisherman from Fort Bragg, Calif.

The council, which advises federal regulators on the management of West Coast fisheries, inched away ever so slightly Tuesday from recommending an unprecedented total closure of the season, which is scheduled to start May 1.

The council ordered its staff to analyze the impact of limited seasons for both recreational and commercial ocean fishermen. It is expected to make a recommendation by week's end to the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service, which has the final say on the season's fate.

Under the council's tentative proposal, sport fishermen would be faced with limits they probably can live with. But the reduced season proposed for commercial fleets, a $150-million industry in Northern California and Oregon, could undercut any chance of a manageable season, some fishermen said.

"This is the kiss of death," said Duncan MacLean, a Half Moon Bay, Calif., salmon fisherman. "We had the rug pulled out from under us."

The proposed commercial season in Northern California would cover the months of May, August, September and part of July. But the fleet, MacLean said, would be pushed into spots along the coast where salmon traditionally can't be found those months of the year.

As commercial fishermen grumbled, federal officials continued to warn that anything short of an outright ban on taking salmon off the Oregon and Northern California coasts might not pass regulatory muster.

Chinook salmon returning this fall to the Klamath River, which begins in Oregon and empties into the Pacific north of Eureka, Calif., are expected to fall below the federal benchmark of 35,000 for the third year in a row. The Klamath's salmon runs have been hard hit for decades by dams that have blocked their natural migration, river flows slashed by irrigation diversions and silt from logging runoff.

With the Chinook returns failing to live up to the federal standard, "the risk is too great in our view" to not prohibit fishing, said Frank Lockhart, a National Marine Fisheries Service assistant regional administrator.

Recent positive signs for the Klamath's return to health -- a court ruling last week that should boost river flows -- will help, Lockhart said. But when the water returns, he said, the council should ensure that it "doesn't flow over streams devoid of salmon."

Fishermen reject the notion that they are part of the problem. Representatives of every arm of the industry -- boat builders, tackle shop owners, gear manufacturers, fish market owners -- paraded before the Pacific Fishery council to plead for a reprieve from an outright fishing ban.

One recreational fishing group presented a petition opposed to the ban bearing 20,000 signatures. More than 350 recreational anglers gathered in a West Sacramento warehouse Tuesday to rally, then bused to the council meeting across town.

A scientist hired by the anglers told the council that a full recreational season along California, where sportfishing is a $761-million industry, would claim only 327 naturally spawning Klamath fall-run Chinook.

"No one, at any stage of industry or government, would think that giving up $761 million for 327 fish is a credible outcome," said Dan Wolford, Coastside Fishing Club science director.

Ann Maurice, a Sonoma County resident who said her only link to salmon is at the dinner table, said that the best showing by Klamath's returning salmon came three years after only a meager showing by the fish.

In 1992, for example, 12,000 salmon returned to the river to spawn, but their offspring thrived and three years later the return was among the biggest ever -- 160,000 fish. Instead of dwelling on how many fish are returning and putting artificial limits on fishing, she said, federal officials need to focus on healing a very sick river.

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