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California sport salmon fishing almost totally closed

5/11/2008

Fishy Business

The ocean waters off the coast of Oregon and California have already been closed to all sport and commercial fishing up to three miles offshore for this season due to the dramatic decline in fall-run Chinook salmon last year.

In previous years, the fall Sacramento Chinook run reached as high as 800,000 fish but last fall the run was less than 60,000.

In a conference call with the press, on May 9 the California Fish and Game Commission announced that all stream fishing for salmon in the state would also be closed with two exceptions:

• The Klamath River — which had a normal run of fall Chinook salmon last year.

• The Sacramento River from Knights Landing to the Red Bluff Diversion Dam will be open to anglers from Nov. 1-Dec. 31 with a limit of one Chinook salmon per day. The decision was made to protect spawning.

"This decision was painful to all members of the Commission," said Commission President Richard Rogers, but "our charge is to return all wild creatures to sustainable abundance, they way they once were," as well as provide recreational opportunities to the sportsmen of the state.

DFG Chief Deputy Director John McCamman said that offering the late season would have a "nearly zero impact on the fishery," as anglers will be targeting the late-fall run of Chinook, and not the fall run, which was down 80 percent in the Sacramento River and 90 percent in the San Joaquin River last year. And, "it should lessen the socio-economic impact of the closure, which is considerable."

From 1979 to 2004 the economic value of the commercial and sport fishery for California and Southern Oregon was estimated as $103 million a year. The Federal Government has declared the West Coast salmon fishery a disaster this year.

The economic impact of closing commercial and nearly all sport salmon fishing in California this year is estimated at $255 million with a loss of 2,263 jobs.

The National Oceanographic Administration has identified changing ocean conditions are the principle cause of the dramatic drop in salmon. The Pacific Fisheries Management Commission has gone further and identified at least 46 reasons for the decline in salmon in California, Oregon and Washington.

John Beuttler, Conservation Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said that as if California's budget woes were not bad enough already, the economic impact of the salmon closure would be "especially significant to rural economies," and it would also have dramatic social effects as well.

"There are things that we can't change, like ocean conditions, but there are conditions we can change like diversions of water from Delta, unscreened pumps, dams, loss of habitat and poaching of adults and smolts," Beuttler said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a measure that would allocate $5.3 million for coastal salmon and steelhead restoration projects. They hope these measures will draw another $20 million in federal matching funds.

One area of agreement among state agency and private sector sport and commercial fishermen is that California's game warden situation is a serious factor that has an effect on the salmon fishery. California has only 192 wardens for 38 million people — the worst per capita ratio of wardens in North America.

Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton said, "The warden shortage in California is as big a disaster as the salmon fishery's decline."

Commissioner Rogers added that the Commission maintains that the number of wardens in California should be increased "by a factor of four" to handle the need.

"This would increase the wardens per capita numbers to those of Texas or Florida," DFG Director Donald Koch said.

Last fall, within 10 miles of Sacramento, one Game Warden made 130 arrests for salmon poaching in the period of three months. When fellow Wardens joined him it resulted in more than 400 salmon poaching arrests.

Though short-handed, warden deployment is being redirected to protect the fall salmon run.

"Wardens will be patrolling in the air, on the water and on land," Director Koch asserted. Originally the Governor had recommended cutting 38 wardens from the budget, but those positions have been restored.

The commissioners emphasized that "Wildlife is under assault across the board" in California due to the warden shortage. The DFG estimated that the redirection of wardens to focus on protecting the fall Chinook run from poaching would cost $1.7 million this year.

Violators of the ban or regulations for the seasons on the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers can look forward to fines of $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail.

The quota for the Klamath River is 20,000 chinook this year. The season and bag limit will be set at the next commission meeting on late June.

While the closure of the Central Valley salmon fishery is unprecedented, in 2006 the Klamath River was closed to all sport fishing. This hopefully indicates that the closure coupled with increased enforcement can turn the salmon fishery around.

Anglers may keep posted on any developments in the salmon fishery through a special page n the California Department of Fish and Game's website.

There will be a Salmon Aid Festival held in Oakland on May 31-June 1 to increase public awareness of the salmon fishery and its value to the state.