By Kurtis Alexander and Jenna Lyons
- Updated 8:17 pm, Tuesday, March 15, 2016
March 15, 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. Phillips is a third generation fisherman and has been doing it for 38 years. He just bought a house which he saved twenty years for and after having no crab season, he is concerned about what the upcoming salmon season. less
California’s commercial fish industry, already struggling with the devastating loss of the crab season, is likely to see its run of bad luck continue as new and far-reaching restrictions take aim at the state’s salmon opener in May.
Federal fishery regulators unveiled plans this week to limit this year’s chinook salmon catch in an effort to protect the state’s signature seafood amid the growing threats of a warming ocean and drought-parched rivers and creeks.
Three proposals offered this week by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the agency that regulates West Coast fishing, call for reining in the places and times that commercial fishers can pursue salmon — cutting opportunities by up to one-half, according to some estimates.
“It’s almost like a one-two-three punch,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “Fishermen had a poor 2015 season, they’ve been shut down for crab, and now they’re looking at a poor 2016 season.”
Those in the trade say restrictions would not only send anglers in California’s $1.4 billion salmon industry north to more bountiful waters, particularly to Alaska, but also mean a lot less local fish on the docks. That portends higher prices for restaurants and markets pushing a California product.
“Alaska salmon is good, but we like to think ours is better,” McManus said.
A final decision on restrictions is due next month before the commercial season opens May 1.
Far fewer chinook
The proposed regulations follow projections that the number of fall-run chinook, which make up the bulk of California’s commercial and recreational catch, is significantly down.
Fishery officials estimate that about 300,000 adult salmon that spawn in the Sacramento River system — but spend most of their life at sea — are currently swimming off the California coast, approximately half of what was projected in past years. Only about 142,000 salmon from the Klamath River are out at sea, a number that is similarly low.
The pending restrictions also serve to protect the endangered winter-run chinook, which cross paths with their fall-run counterparts.
“To get enough fish back in the river, we have to curtail some of the ocean activity,” said Mike Burner, deputy director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, who advises a 14-member panel that will vote on the final restrictions.
Regulations north of California are pegged to be even more stringent, with one proposal calling for the complete closure of the commercial salmon season in Washington and northern Oregon.
In California, the opportunity for commercial salmon fishing will be narrowed to as little as half of what it was last year, according to Dave Bitts, a salmon troller who serves as an outside adviser to the council.
The recreational season, which is scheduled to begin next month, is not expected to be as limited.
Blame warm waters
Federal regulators attribute the low counts of salmon to ocean waters that have been warmer than usual, due in part to a peculiar blob of balmy water off the West Coast last year. The increased water temperatures — also traced to climate change — have disrupted the fish and its prey, experts say.
Inland, reduced snowpack and competing demands for water amid the California drought have dried up and warmed the rivers and creeks where the salmon spawn. Just 3 percent of last year’s young winter-run chinook are believed to have survived their migration to sea in the soupy Sacramento River.
No season in 2008-09
Similarly poor ocean and river conditions led to the outright closure of the state’s salmon season in 2008 and 2009.
Anglers hoping that last year’s disappointing salmon season would be followed by a successful crab season were shocked to find the Dungeness opener in November canceled. Regulators found high levels of a neurotoxin, domoic acid, in the shellfish, due to an algal bloom also linked to the warm Pacific.
Most California waters have not opened to crab fishing since.
“They call this Fisherman’s Wharf. But pretty soon there’s going to be no more fishermen here,” said Mike Phillips, 49, a third-generation angler who was at San Francisco’s Pier 45 on Tuesday. “We’re losing our businesses.”
Phillips said he lost all of his income with the closure of the crab season, and he now worries his plight won’t improve much with the salmon opener.
Tests for domoic acid in crab released Monday showed slightly elevated levels of the toxin near where the Russian River flows into the ocean, according to Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association — meaning little chance that crabbing will resume anytime soon.
Clean tests are required two weeks in a row before the season can be opened, putting waters south of Point Arena off limits for at least three more weeks.
Slow time at wharf
Most crab fishermen have already given up on the season.
“There’s definitely a point where people are going to go salmon fishing instead of crabbing,” Collins said. “We usually start stacking the gear out by the end of March … (but) really, I’ve never seen it this dead.
“Down at the wharf it’s like a graveyard,” he added. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
San Francisco Chronicle
staff writer Peter Fimrite
contributed to this story.