Salmon Fishermen Hooking Mixed Results

By Terry Dillman
Commercial salmon fishermen off the Oregon coast are so far
landing considerably more fish this season than they did in 2011 and 2010, but
the results, while promising, are far from satisfying for stalwarts who have
watched the fishery dwindle drastically during the past decade, the last
several seasons in particular.
Idled for most of the past six years, Oregon’s commercial salmon fishermen
entered the 2012 season riding another wave of anticipation, although their
enthusiasm remained somewhat tempered in the wake of last season’s
disappointment. As in 2011, the 2012 season weighed anchor May 1 with much
improved prospects along the Oregon, Washington and California coasts.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) said salmon fisheries in
Oregon and California looked “particularly promising” due mainly to good river
conditions and excellent ocean conditions for salmon. Fishery managers expected
“significantly higher” Chinook returns in the Sacramento, Klamath and Rogue
rivers. While fishery alternatives were “necessarily constrained” to protect
Sacramento river Chinook and Columbia river coho stocks on the endangered
species list, Dan Woldford, PFMC chairman, noted the “nice rebound for
California salmon populations and the prospect of good fishing in 2012.”
Despite the optimism, many commercial fishermen said they didn’t expect a
completely silver lining in the black cloud hanging over them for the past few
seasons. So far, 2012 is boom for some, bust for others, and while the harvest
is notably higher than the past two years, the results have industry leaders
seriously pondering the fishery’s future.
Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission,
said fishermen venturing out between bouts of poor weather were reportedly
“doing well,” especially out of Newport and Coos Bay. But the best news flowing
from the early part of the season has ebbed. What Fitzpatrick deemed as
“outstanding” to-the-vessel prices of $6 to $7 per pound during the early part of
the season are now hovering around $4 to $5 per pound.
The most recent numbers available from the Oregon Department of Fish and
Wildlife (ODFW) show cumulative landings of 40,023 Chinook salmon from the five
management areas as of August 12. That’s well ahead of the 27,778 and 36,138
landed by the same time in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
The Coos Bay (Heceta Head to Humbug Mountain) and Newport (Cascade Head to
Heceta Head) areas are leading the way with 16,247 and 10,252 salmon,
respectively. The Columbia River area (Leadbetter Point, Washington to Cape
Falcon) is next with 6,567 salmon landed, followed by the Brookings area
(Humbug Mountain to Point St. George, Calif.) with 4,448 and Tillamook area
(Cape Falcon to Cascade Head) with 2,508.
While it’s a 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.
Fitzpatrick referred to the PFMC’s annual review of ocean salmon
fisheries, which shows 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.
Since 2005, commercial salmon fishermen have watched their livelihoods
shrink to almost nil. A poor 2005 season preceded a federally-declared disaster
in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared
disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent and equally disastrous 2009 season,
a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, and a disappointing
2011, when fish were scarce, despite healthy forecasts.

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).
So the roughly 400,000 pounds landed so far this season – based on
Fitzpatrick’s average of 10 pounds per fish – is 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.
Fishery biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) say adverse climate and ocean conditions that offered
little food for salmon – along with too much dependence on hatchery-raised
rather than wild-hatched salmon – triggered the 2008 collapse of the Sacramento
River chinook, and the subsequent commercial season closure. That closure
effectively gutted the West Coast commercial and recreational salmon fisheries,
according to the PFMC’s postseason review of the salmon fisheries off the
Oregon, Washington and California coasts.

Gutted Fishery
NOAA officials estimated the loss of harvest in 2008 resulted in $60 million in
lost personal income for fishermen and related enterprises. Gov. Ted Kulongoski
of Oregon, Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington, and Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger of California pegged the combined economic impact due to the
closure at $290 million.
West Coast fisheries in PFMC-managed waters – that is, ocean fisheries
between the US/Canada border and the US/Mexico border from 3 to 200 nautical
miles offshore – harvest mainly chinook or king salmon, and coho or silver
salmon. The 2008 closure centered on the dearth of chinook numbers.
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
Fishermen note that the harvest is up so far in 2012, but during September
and October, they are limited to 100 fish per vessel per calendar week (Sunday
through Saturday).
“If you don’t sell on Saturday, the fish caught count for the following
week,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that unruly weather can foul things up for the
fishermen, especially since “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
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. Newport-based fisherman Gene Law said he
no longer goes after salmon. He currently owns two boats, one that fishes for
Oregon pink shrimp and Dungeness crabs, the other seeks out shrimp and
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.

CROOS Control
The Cooperative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon (CROOS) project is a Coastal
Oregon Marine Experiment Station (COMES) effort based at Oregon State
University (OSU)’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport.
Re-launched in May 2010 after two years of a commercial fishing shutdown, the
program is literally paying dividends in Oregon fishing communities, hooking
some much-needed income for participating fishermen and the coastal communities
where they live and work.
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 through the
Pacific FishTrax website ( Pacific FishTrax began in
2009 as a joint venture involving OSU, the Community Seafood Initiative (CSI),
and long-time Oregon fishermen to help alleviate growing consumer concerns
about food safety, quality and origins, and to allow fishermen to market a
high-quality product at high-end prices.
In 2010, OSU researchers worked with colleagues in Washington and
California, along with 200 commercial salmon fishermen (128 of them in Oregon).
Project leaders say Oregon fishermen collected more than 4,500 samples.
COMES Superintendent Gil Sylvia called the effort “a great partnership
between scientists and the fishing community. The project is helping keep many
of the fishermen on the water, and the data they contribute is leading to new
insights about salmon migration and behavior.” Sylvia said most of the money
involved goes to fishermen, the project has “a proven track record” of creating
and maintaining jobs on coastal communities, could help avoid full-scale salmon
closures, and is a coast-wide collaborative approach to salmon management.
“This is an absolute win-win for fishermen, scientists, communities, and
salmon,” said veteran Newport fisherman and Oregon Sea Grant specialist Jeff
Feldner. “This type of collaborative project aims to conserve and sustain
salmon populations, while balancing the important economic benefits that
commercial salmon fishing operations bring to our coastal communities.”
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, especially salmon.
“These types of projects allow us to demonstrate the innovations and
improvements our commercial fisheries have made and will continue to make,”
said Heather Mann, director of the Community Seafood Initiative (CSI), a
partner in both project CROOS and Pacific Fish Trax. “By incorporating
collaborative research efforts into everyday fishing operations, we are taking
advantage of all the knowledge and experience our fishermen have to offer, and
improving fisheries science and management at the same time.”
Other CROOS collaborators include the Oregon Salmon Commission, NOAA
Fisheries, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The fishermen are sharing the data voluntarily because they want to
improve the science and enhance the sustainability of the resource,” Sylvia
said, noting that the project provides “innovative science” leading to
real-time data that “more accurately reflects reality” for fisheries management,
rather than using years-old information to make decisions.
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.
Fitzpatrick said the project has already produced five years of fine-scale
fish distribution data and fishing effort to support long-term ecosystem-based
fisheries science and management. The primary objective, she noted, is “to
prevent the kind of coast-wide fishing closures that have devastated the
fishery, and enhance the economic benefits to the fishery and coastal
communities that depend on it.”
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).”
Fitzpatrick and her husband, Mike, began fishing in 1976, starting with a
dory out of Pacific City. Much has changed since then, especially in the past
seven years, much of it unfavorable to commercial fishermen.
This season might provide a change in the right direction.
The state legislature passed a bill this year to remove the cap on salmon
permits (1,200) 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
“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
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 are harvesting more salmon.
Dillman can be reached at