15 March 2006
season, livelihoods on brink
To preserve the
Klamath River's chinook, fishing could be banned off a large stretch
of the California and Oregon coasts. But the survival of an industry
is also threatened.
By Matt Weiser -- Bee Staff Writer
2:15 am PST Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee
Select image to see a larger image
700 miles of the Pacific Coast, fishing towns and fishermen are
facing the unthinkable this spring: a total closure of the salmon
For consumers, it means there may be no local wild chinook (or king)
salmon in markets and restaurants this year.
For fishermen, it could mean bankruptcy, the end of a way of life.
"I hate to try and imagine how bad my life is going to get," said
Larry Collins. He and his wife, Barbara Emley, are among the last
commercial salmon fishers who still live and work in San Francisco.
"I've been doing this 21 years, and I'm not really positioned to do
prospect is even harder to bear because, this time, fishermen share
none of the blame. And tragically, salmon overall are expected to be
abundant this year, thanks to healthy runs on the Sacramento River
and its tributaries, including the American River. These fish make
up the vast majority of commercial salmon caught in the ocean off
California and Oregon.
The blame falls, instead, on government and private interests who
have failed to resolve their differences in just one corner of
chinook habitat: the Klamath River.
The overall Klamath chinook population is expected to hit its
second-lowest level in 20 years. Fish returning this year to spawn
naturally are predicted to fall below a critical management
threshold for the third year in a row.
Because these fish mingle in the ocean with Sacramento River salmon,
the National Marine Fisheries Service says a total ban on ocean
chinook fishing is the only way to protect the few remaining Klamath
The ban is proposed between California's Point Sur and Oregon's
Falcon Point, a vast area where chinook represent a $150 million
industry and the cornerstone of many local economies.
"Most of our boats that fish here, the primary income from fishing
is salmon," said Mike Stiller, a commercial fisherman in Santa Cruz
for 30 years. "It's part of the heritage of this state. You could
live without it. You could live without grapevines, too. But it's
part of the history and the culture of this state."
Stiller and other fishermen blame government officials for failing
to solve the Klamath River's long-standing problems. The result
could be the end of a commercial fishing tradition that, in some
coastal towns, goes back a century or more.
Tony Anello and his wife, Carol Ann, own Spud Point Crab Co. in
Bodega Bay. Crab is a significant part of the business, but half
their revenue comes from salmon. Their son Mark is poised to become
the fourth generation in the business after investing $150,000 in a
boat. The season closure could end his hopes.
"We really worked hard to get our local wild king salmon in the
marketplace, and now we're going to be just devastated," Tony Anello
said. "It's all caused by the federal government, it's not caused by
us, but we're the ones paying for it."
Many blame a Bush administration decision in 2002 to ignore its own
federal biologists and divert more water from the Klamath River for
farm irrigation. The decision put salmon in jeopardy as they tried
to swim upriver to spawn.
An estimated 70,000 fish were killed that fall in stagnant pools on
the lower Klamath by disease and suffocation - about half of them
A 2003 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was the
worst die-off in history on the Klamath, and possibly the entire
The report blamed the deaths on a combination of low water flows and
a relatively large spawning run, which worsened the crowding and
caused deadly parasites to spread.
Because those fish didn't spawn, fewer adults remained in the ocean
two years later, prompting the National Marine Fisheries Service to
abbreviate the commercial salmon season last year. Some fishermen
say the decision slashed their income by 50 percent.
Last year, for the first time in its 30-year history, the Fort Bragg
Salmon Restoration Association had to buy fish from Alaska for its
"World's Largest Salmon BBQ," a fundraiser.
As Larry Collins put it, a "death spiral" has begun, both for
chinook and the people who depend on them.
Only 24,000 fall chinook spawned naturally in the Klamath in 2004,
followed by 27,000 last year. This year, fisheries managers predict
Under federal rules, three straight years below a spawning objective
of 35,000 fish triggers a "conservation alert."
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced at a meeting in
Seattle on March 7 that it may be forced to close the salmon season
to save next fall's spawners, even though they are only a small
percentage of the fish caught commercially in the ocean.
The ban would apply to ocean sport fishing, as well, and a
recreational fishing ban is likely on the Klamath River itself.
The Pacific Fisheries Management Council will make a recommendation
on the closure at meetings in Sacramento in early April. But the
council is only an advisory body to the National Marine Fisheries
Service, which can impose the closure on its own.
The commercial salmon season normally begins May 1 in California,
and April 1 in Oregon.
"We're trying to save what we can," said Scott Barrow, a senior
biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, a voting
member of the management council. "It's a huge economic and
political decision that's going to have to take place."
Meanwhile, little has changed where the problem began - on the
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation continues to follow the same water
diversion policy blamed for killing salmon in 2002. That is the case
even though fishing and environmental groups, led by the nonprofit
group Earth justice, won a federal appellate court ruling in October
invalidating the policy. The group now hopes for another ruling to
require a change in flows while a new plan is developed.
John Hicks, planning division chief at the agency's Klamath regional
office, rejected the idea that agricultural diversions are behind
the salmon die-off. He said the water his agency controls represents
only 11 percent of the flow at the mouth of the Klamath, where the
fish died in 2002.
"It's pretty hard for us to make significant impacts no matter what
we do, which is part of the problem," said Hicks. "Everybody's kind
of looking for the silver bullet: There must be one thing out there
we can do that's going to fix it. But it's a very complicated
That view is echoed by Peter Moyle, professor of fish biology at UC
Davis. Moyle served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that
reviewed the Klamath's problems in 2003.
The panel found that a host of problems are killing the Klamath,
including high water temperatures and sedimentation caused by
logging, road construction and agriculture. It recommended new
land-management rules, as well as acquiring water rights for fish on
the Klamath's tributaries, especially the Trinity and Scott rivers.
It also recommended removing Iron Gate Dam, the first of six major
dams on the Klamath River, which has no fish ladders.
"The chinook salmon are just the tip of the iceberg," Moyle said.
"The decline of the salmon fishery is just a major indicator of the
seriousness of problems on the Klamath River in general."
Those six dams on the Klamath are in the middle of the relicensing
process by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A coalition of
environmental groups and American Indian tribes wants the commission
to order removal of the lowest four dams, including Iron Gate.
The dams, owned by PacifiCorp, a unit of Scottish Power, provide
hydroelectric power, but no water for farms or cities.
"What we hope will happen as an outcome is that we'll look at these
dams and realize they don't provide the benefit to society that the
commercial fishery does," said Craig Tucker, campaign coordinator
for the Karuk tribe.
The closure proposal comes as commercial fishermen try to win
international certification of California chinook as a "sustainable"
fishery. Such a label is important to consumers who want to ensure
their purchases don't deplete the environment.
David Goldenberg of the California Salmon Council said there is no
inconsistency, even though the sustainability of Klamath River
chinook is very much in doubt. The proposed ban, he said, shows the
system is working to sustain Klamath fish.
It remains to be seen if fisherman will survive the closure.
"If we don't get an adequate season, we're out of business. We're
broke. Belly up," said David Yarger, a Bodega Bay salmon fisherman.
"It would be just like you walking into your office in the morning
and having them tell you, 'We don't need you anymore.'"