Cautious optimism again best describes the attitude of commercial salmon fishermen in the wake of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC)’s adopted ocean salmon seasons for 2013. PFMC recommends management measures for fisheries off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.
Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said cold ocean water has led to a slow start, but prospects for the season are looking up. “The numbers are very positive,” she said. “We’re hoping.”
Strong abundance forecasts for both Sacramento River and Klamath River fall Chinook promise commercial and recreational fishing opportunities along the entire coast, especially Oregon and California. PFMC adopted the recommendations in April, and forwarded them to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for approval the first of May. Dan Wofford, the council chairman, noted the potential for “another strong year for ocean salmon fisheries off California and Oregon, with reasonable seasons north of Cape Falcon” while still satisfying conservation goals for more than 50 salmon stocks.
Salmon fisheries south of Cape Falcon (in northern Oregon) rely primarily on Sacramento River fall chinook.
In 2008 and 2009, poor Sacramento returns led to the largest ocean salmon fishery closure on record. The abundance forecast of Sacramento River fall chinook in 2013 is 834,200, similar to last season and far above the number needed for optimum spawning this fall (122,000 to 180,000 fish). The Klamath River fall chinook ocean abundance forecast for 2013 is 727,600 – third highest on record since 1985.
Eric Schindler, ocean salmon sampling project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW)’s Marine Resources Program, said predictions look rosy south of Cape Falcon, Oregon, but especially from Humbug Mountain on the California coast to the Oregon-California border. In fact, fishermen in the California Klamath Management Zone already caught the May quota of 3,000 chinook.
“The good news is they’re catching fish, and fishing could be really good, but it depends on the zone,” said Schindler. “The fish were there last year – they just weren’t along the Oregon coast. This year, it’s really hit-or-miss for numbers of fish north of Cascade Head. We hope to see more of the Sacramento fish between Humbug Mountain and Cape Falcon.”
This is also a “pink year,” he added, meaning there could be some pink salmon landings. Just how much is anybody’s guess.
Despite the generally rosy predictions, a number of commercial fishermen prefer to remain cautiously optimistic. As Schindler noted, “the fish have to cooperate, the weather has to cooperate, and the fishermen have to get out.”
Commercial salmon fishermen, however, have watched their livelihoods dwindle to almost nothing during the past several seasons – even the promising ones in 2011 and 2012 that didn’t really reach their anticipated potentials.
After a poor 2005 season, a federally-declared disaster in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent 2009 season, and a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, most fishermen were optimistic about 2011 prospects. Fishery managers predicted much stronger returns of fall Chinook and coho, opening the hatch to more sizeable commercial ocean salmon season that sadly never materialized. Managers certainly expected more than the 513,000 pounds of Chinook landed in 2010.
It wasn’t even close.
Despite the healthy forecasts, fish were scarce, with some calling it an absolute bust. A few boasts averaged as low as one salmon per day, and many trollers simply quit fishing because operating costs – for licenses, permits, insurance, maintenance, fuel and more - far outweighed any potential income.
Many fishermen ended up in debt or broke after gearing up for a season that failed to live up to expectations, said Fitzpatrick.
Since 2004, when Oregon’s salmon trollers landed 2.9 million pounds of fish, and 2005, when they hauled in 2.6 million pounds, they have endured a federally-declared disaster in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent 2009 season, a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, a disappointing 2011, when fish were scarce, despite healthy forecasts, followed by last season’s improved, but less than stellar results.
The fleet again faces much-improved prospects for the 2013 season, but those who don’t want to follow in the wake of others who were driven out of the business during these lean, mean years are again taking a wait-and-see attitude.
The cumulative economic effects during that stretch of poor fishing opportunities were substantial, not just for the commercial fishery, but recreational, marine and freshwater fisheries and the communities that depend on them. It’s an image fishermen want to keep from becoming iconic. Commercial salmon fishermen have lost much of the capacity to fish, and wishing and hoping have become standard gear.
In 2008 and 2009, federal disaster funding reimbursed salmon fishermen at 100 percent of their best season of the previous five years. Some fishermen used the disaster funds to train for other jobs. Some retired. More than a few stayed the course, because fishing is a lifestyle, a culture of folks who thrive at sea, despite its vagaries.
Fitzpatrick said it’s where they want to be and what they want to do. Most vitally, it’s who they are.
Cause and Effect
Blame for declining runs of Pacific Northwest salmon has focused on habitat loss from logging and development, predatory sea lions, power-generating dams, terns and other coastal birds that prey on juvenile fish, changes in hatchery operations, and over-fishing by commercial and sports fishermen. Still, the most common factor in determining good seasons or bad is the ocean itself, and scientists are continually monitoring ocean conditions – temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen content, and other factors – to determine their effect on salmon distribution.
Researchers like Bill Peterson, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), and others are working diligently to discover the reasons behind salmon run declines and collapses, and to find ways to more accurately predict those fluctuations and deal with them.
The survival rate of juvenile salmon in the ocean is a key indicator of future salmon runs, and ocean conditions at the time those juveniles migrate from estuaries and rivers into the ocean determine their survival rate.
When those young salmon enter the ocean, they need enough food to not only survive, but to grow quickly enough to escape predators. The smaller the juveniles are, the more potential predators they face offshore. And if ocean conditions aren’t favorable, the predators won’t have other fish like herring, anchovies and sardines as alternative meals, leaving the salmon even more vulnerable. Anchovies, sardines, herring, and other small fish also make up the main part of the diet for the salmon themselves.
Fisheries biologists say coho return as adults after 18 months. Spring chinook return after two years, and fall chinook take three years or longer.
Juvenile salmon spend months in fresh water estuaries and rivers, but can leave anytime. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what triggers the migration to the ocean, but studies indicate the importance of timing. Favorable or unfavorable ocean conditions at the time of migrations determine survival rates for juvenile salmon, researchers note.
The ocean’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality makes it difficult for biologists to make accurate predictions.
A collaborative project between scientists and commercial fishermen from Oregon, Washington, and California on a critical study to learn more about salmon distribution, migration and behavior in the ocean. Based at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), it uses genetic markers of individual ocean-caught salmon to pinpoint their river of origin. Started in 2006, the project originally focused on Oregon’s ocean salmon to determine where fish from specific rivers travel in the ocean, then switched to tuna as closures in 2008 and 2009 put a drag on the effort. It returned to salmon in 2010 with a full sampling season and a program expansion.
The collaborative effort unites state-of-the-art science with traditional salmon fishing know-how.
The fishermen function as ocean researchers, collecting and recording at-sea data during salmon fishing operations, and clipping fin samples that scientists use for genetic testing. As they catch salmon, the fishermen also log the time and location using global positioning system (GPS) technology and enter the data into the project’s computer system. Data so far indicate that salmon from different river systems behave differently, which could have important implications for future management and stock protection decisions.
Project leaders say the combination of scientific research and public outreach is designed to simultaneously get the word out about Oregon’s commercial fisheries, and strengthen wild fish runs, including salmon.
Using genetic analysis, scientists say they can tell in near real-time the river basin from which the salmon originated, allowing managers to know whether or not the stock is considered weak under annually derived regulations.
Ultimately, fisheries managers say they want to use this information in combination with other biological and oceanographic information the fishermen collect, to move the fishermen to areas of healthy stock during the season. Improved access to healthy stocks would allow commercial salmon fishermen to stay on the water and avoid the full-scale fishing closures that hurt everyone – harvesters, seafood processors, and the rural coastal communities that depend on fishing for at least part of their livelihoods.
“We’re hoping for a season that provides plenty of opportunity for folks to get out on the water and hook a salmon,” said Steve Williams, ODFW deputy administrator for Fish Division. “A solid salmon season could be a real economic shot in the arm for coastal communities.”
Commercial fishermen already have been fishing along the Oregon Coast south of Cape Falcon, and have been reporting good success from Newport to Bandon, according to Chris Kern, ODFW salmon manager.
Summary of the Ocean Seasons Adopted by PFMC:
North of Cape Falcon to Leadbetter Pt., Washington: Commercial troll salmon seasons and quotas very similar to last year. Seasons will start on May 1 for chinook and July 1 for hatchery coho and should continue through mid-September.
South of Cape Falcon: Commercial troll chinook salmon seasons from Cape Falcon to Humbug Mt. that provides for full fishing from April 1 through Aug.29, and fall fishing with weekly trip limits from Sept. 4 through Oct. 31. Commercial troll chinook salmon seasons from Humbug Mt. to OR/CA border from April 1 through May 31 without trip limits or quotas, followed by June, July, August, and September seasons managed by quota with daily trip limits.
Commercial salmon fishermen off the Oregon coast are landing fish, but despite the optimism and a 2012 harvest notably higher than the previous two years, industry leaders are seriously pondering the fishery’s future. Despite the significant improvement, it’s nowhere near the fishery’s halcyon days of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, when 2,000 to 4,000 vessels plied the waters trolling for the Pacific Northwest’s signature fish species.
According to ODFW, the commercial salmon troll fishery began developing off the Oregon coast by 1912, and within seven years, 1,000 to 2,000 boats were trolling off the mouth of the Columbia River. Oregon began recording troll landings separately from gillnet fisheries in 1925.
Landings of ocean troll caught coho salmon remained relatively stable from 1925 to 1941, with landings between 2 million and 4 million pounds most years. From 1942 to 1950, catches remained near 1 million pounds annually, but by 1957 landings climbed to 3.4 million pounds. The El Niño of 1958-59 resulted in landings dropping back below 1 million pounds or 200,000 fish.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, improved hatchery production and rearing techniques, a growing troll fleet, and good ocean survival rates of smolts to adults resulted in record landings that peaked in 1976 with 1.8 million coho landed. From the mid-1970s through the 1990s, Oregon’s ocean coho fishery faced on-going poor ocean environmental conditions and poor overall survival, increased management restrictions and reduced ocean harvest opportunities.
Although chinook harvest has also fluctuated dramatically, the long-term trend was toward higher landings, with record harvests in 1987 and 1988. Harvests dropped during the early 1990s due to decreases in many stocks and concern for critical natural stocks under both state and federal management and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), along with escalating allocation conflicts between river and ocean user groups.
Coho salmon landings have historically eclipsed chinook, but ODFW records show that for the last decade, chinook landings have either equaled coho or many times made up most of the catch. Chinook are likely to continue to predominate in the landings unless coho populations recover substantially to allow directed coho fisheries to resume coastwide, ODFW officials noted.
Entry into the troll fishery went unrestricted until 1980 when a permit moratorium was adopted.
Although 4,311 vessels already had Oregon troll permits, managers established a goal of 2,400 vessels licensed to troll for salmon in Oregon. In 1993, it dropped to 1,800 vessels, and to 1,200 in 1995 based on recommendations by an industry review panel. As of 1999, permit numbers had dropped below the 1,200 cap, and a lottery was introduced in 2001 to issue available permits.
Fitzpatrick referred to the PFMC’s annual review of ocean salmon fisheries, which showed that the number of vessel owners with salmon permits has dwindled from a high of 4,314 in 1980 to slightly more than 1,000 in 2011, due in large part to fishery management efforts, most notably permit restrictions and salmon quotas. In 1980, 3,875 vessels landed salmon – the highest on record. Last season, just 302 vessels harvested fish.
The worst year was 2008, when only 138 vessels landed salmon in the middle of a federally-declared disaster season.
In 1976, salmon fishermen hauled in almost 11 million pounds of salmon worth $14.7 million. By comparison, they landed 499,000 pounds in 2006 valued at $2.7 million, 565,000 pounds in 2007 valued at $2.8 million, only 70,000 pounds in 2008 worth $494,000 and 146,000 pounds in 2009 valued at just $345,000. The numbers rose in 2010 (513,000 pounds worth $2.8 million) and 2011 (403,000 pounds valued at $2.4 million).
Last season was a definite improvement, but nowhere near what’s needed to revive the fishery and keep it viable for those who once depended only on it for a living. Fishery managers say salmon fishing has declined precipitously and stocks have dwindled due to a complex set of circumstances.
Based on Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network (PacFIN) data, only 194 vessels participated in the West coast commercial salmon fishery in 2008, down from 1,007 the previous year. The overall harvest (14,500 fish) plummeted to the lowest on record. Total ex-vessel value dropped to $1.2 million, again the lowest ever - 90 percent below the $11.9 million in 2007. The average per vessel inflation-adjusted ex-vessel value of salmon landings dropped to $5,300, half of the 2007 level. Ex-vessel value dropped 46 percent in Oregon, 33 percent in Washington and nearly 100 percent in California.
Income impacts for coastal communities are estimated per commercial pound and per recreational fishing day. They represent estimates – based on reported landings by area and other factors - of personal income associated with harvesting, processing, and “first level distribution activities” in the commercial and recreational salmon fisheries at the local community (county) and state levels.
Combined impact for all three states hit a record low of $6.9 million in 2008, well below the $39.9 million in 2007. The commercial fishery netted $1.4 million, down from $19.4 million the previous year, while the recreational fishery drew $5.5 million, down from $20.1 million in 2007.
Prices for ocean harvested chinook were the highest on record, averaging $6.96 per pound, besting the previous highs of $5.43 in 2006 and $5.38 in 2007.
“One of the main reasons 2008 prices were so high was due to the extremely restricted 2008 fishing season,” the PFMC review noted.
Fishermen and owners of related businesses reeling from the closure already knew that, and their misery continued through 2009. The outlook and harvest improved considerably in 2010 and 2011, but last season fell well short of expectations.
Unruly weather can foul things up for the fishermen, especially since – as “we’re the smaller boat fleet.” Most salmon trollers range from 20 feet to 50 feet, with only a few at 50-plus feet. “Lots of big boats have salmon permits, but they aren’t focused on salmon,” she added.
When the wind and waves rise, the smaller boats generally don’t go out. Safety is a key concern, and fishermen say the rewards these days don’t offset the risk.
Commercial salmon fishermen have become an endangered species themselves. Many of them are shunning salmon fishing and either turning to other fisheries to maintain their livelihoods or getting out of fishing altogether – an unpalatable decision for most of them. Salmon fishing just doesn’t pay as well as other fisheries anymore.
“If it had not been for the disaster relief funds, we would have lost a lot more boats,” said Fitzpatrick, who has been with the Oregon Salmon Commission since its inception in 1989.
Others hooked into an ongoing research project, trolling for salmon and science simultaneously, gleaning data that fishery managers hope could prevent complete closures of salmon fishing in the future. Because salmon management is so complicated and complex, the jury is still out on whether or not these and other efforts are enough to salvage the fishery.
One thing is certain: change is inevitable and the salmon fishery will never return to its former epic levels.
What Lies Ahead
“It’s an iconic fishery,” said Fitzpatrick, noting the history and “romance” as well as the generational aspect of salmon fishing. “These men and women decided that being on the ocean, being their own captain, being their own boss is what they want to do.”
Doing so is becoming more and more difficult.
Costs (moorage fees, insurance, equipment, fuel and more – “all the expenses of preparation paid out before you even put a boat in the water,” said Fitzpatrick) keep rising, market prices and weather fluctuate, regulations and restrictions change – usually becoming more onerous, and the ongoing debate between wild versus hatchery fish continues. To top it off, the fishery management equation – the way quotas and seasons are determined – has turned salmon into what Fitzpatrick calls “a credit card fishery.”
“Salmon is the most complicated and regulated fish in the Pacific Northwest,” she noted. “We basically catch fish on credit this year and pay for it next year (in reduced quotas or other ways).”
The state legislature passed a bill last year to remove the cap on salmon permits and eliminate the lottery system in place since 1991.
“Since 1992, not even half of the boats were fishing,” said Fitzpatrick. “If the numbers fell below 1,000, we had to open up a lottery to anybody to get the number back up.” The lottery hurt permit holders, since others could get permits by lottery for much less than the $5,000 to $10,000 it might otherwise cost.
“If we ever wanted a buyout – and I’m not saying we would – then we had to eliminate the lottery,” said Fitzpatrick. “Permit holders can renew every year, and if they don’t, the permit disappears. Under the lottery system, it didn’t disappear.”
The salmon commission’s focus is to get fresh wild caught Oregon salmon into the market. That means promoting high quality Oregon salmon to local restaurants, smaller retail stores and seafood counters – a strategy that is seemingly paying off. “It disappears fast,” Fitzpatrick said. “Buyers up and down the coast look for it.”
What the future holds remains uncertain. But for the third consecutive year, commercial fishermen could harvest more salmon.