The West Coast will have a salmon fishing season for the first time in two years, but it will be a far cry from the days when abundant chinook catches drove a multimillion-dollar industry in the region.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted late Thursday to recommend an abbreviated commercial trolling season for Sacramento Delta chinook. The council, which advises federal regulators, settled on a longer -- but still curtailed -- season for ocean sport fishing of the salmon south of Point Arena. The National Marine Fisheries Service will have the final say.
The decision represents an effort to save a waning industry despite signs that California's historically bountiful salmon run in the Sacramento River has dwindled to what some fishing advocates say are extinction levels.
Fishing boats moored for two years along the California coast will be able to hit the seas once more.
But their haul will be light compared with those in better times, when tens of thousands of salmon were caught off the coast and they still surged by the millions up the Sacramento River to their spawning grounds.
"This is nowhere near a normal season," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "It will provide some hope for people, but for most . . . it won't even pay for gas and equipment."
Many fishermen support limits despite hardships, Spain said. They fear the disappearance of the chinook and want measures to ensure its survival, including fewer water draws for agriculture from the Sacramento River Delta, a simmering political issue in California.
The vote effectively breaks the two-year moratorium on salmon fishing that proved damaging enough to West Coast fishing communities that the federal government paid boat owners, tackle merchants, restaurants and hoteliers $230 million in disaster assistance to make up for salmon losses.
Despite the fishing ban, the number of returning fall chinook salmon last year was stunningly paltry. Researchers said the population was "collapsing." An estimated 39,500 Chinook salmon found their way back up the Sacramento River Delta last fall, less than a third the number scientists had predicted; no one knows exactly why.
This year's ocean fishing season targets salmon born a year or so later than those in last fall's meager return, and scientists project that fish of this more recent generation will return in sufficient abundance to support a very small fishery.
But doubt remains. As fish populations decline and factors threatening the salmon multiply, scientifically projecting survival rates becomes a chancy enterprise, experts say.
The fishery council members were left to make a decision amid unease that scientific projections could again be wrong. If the salmon are in more trouble than projections suggest, fishing could further jeopardize the population. But a third consecutive shutdown could have devastated an already ailing industry that may not receive more federal aid.
The council split the difference. Members approved a curtailed season that may result in a catch of about 57,000 Sacramento Delta chinook salmon off the California and Oregon coasts, a fraction of normal harvests.
Analysts predict this will allow another 180,000 chinook to return upriver to spawn, enough to sustain the species.
The vote came after passionate testimony from interest groups at the meeting in Portland, Ore. Advocates were split between those who wanted the season open to more fishing and those who wanted to maintain the ban to ensure future catches.
But on both sides, concern about plummeting salmon numbers ran high, said Butch Smith, chairman of the Salmon Advisory Subpanel, which reviews fish projections and season options. "Fishermen do not want to catch the last fish," Smith said.
Paul Johnson, a Bay Area fish wholesaler, said many people in California salmon industries are less concerned with canceled or curtailed seasons -- seen as inevitable, given the grim news on chinook -- than with the mushrooming Sacramento Delta water wars.
In recent years, litigation has pitted fishing and environmental interests against agribusiness over diminished delta water supplies. Salmon boat operators, and the tradespeople who support the industry, have felt "rolled over" in the political arena, Johnson said. In response, they are beginning to unite to combat what they see as more powerful and organized agricultural interests, he said.
In a first for the industry, several hundred salmon fishing advocates organized by a group called Salmon Water Now gathered in San Francisco earlier this month, he said. They dined on sardines, not salmon, and talked strategy. Environmentalists also attended.
"Our jobs are just as important as agricultural jobs," Johnson said. "Can you imagine? Salmon is almost extinct in the Bay Area. . . . We have to put aside our differences and come together."
The set of salmon seasons approved by the council include recreational fishing for chinook only from Memorial Day to Labor Day in the Eureka-Crescent City area, and Thursday through Monday from April 3 to Sept. 6 farther south.