Alanna Madden

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — An extremely low "abundance" of California Chinook salmon stocks and projected low spawning escapements has led to the cancellation of the upcoming commercial and recreational salmon fishing season along most of the Oregon coast.

Thursday's announcement came in two parts from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, with both actions canceling fishing seasons between March 15 and May 15, 2023.

According to Fish and Wildlife, the action applies to all commercial ocean troll salmon fishery seasons from Cape Falcon to the Oregon-California Border. Meanwhile, recreational salmon fishing has been canceled in ocean waters between Cape Falcon and Humbug Mountain off the Oregon coast.

Fish and Wildlife’s announcement said the decision arrived in consultation between the National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Fishery Management Council and the state of California.

The agencies’ rationale is that “multiple stocks of California Chinook Salmon are at extremely low abundance and are projected to potentially fall below target spawning escapements.”

Just this January, the Biden administration said it would consider adding Chinook salmon in Oregon and Northern California to the endangered or threatened species lists. The consideration came at the behest of nonprofits who petitioned in August 2022 and pointed out that by the 1950s, most spring-run populations of coastal Oregon and Northern California Chinook salmon "were severely depressed or extirpated due to a combination of habitat degradation, commercial fisheries, and negative impacts of artificial propagation through hatcheries.”

Fish and Wildlife wrote that guidance provided by the National Marine Fisheries Services for the 2023 ocean salmon seasons involving Sacramento River fall Chinook was that “extraordinary measures” are necessary to address these circumstances and “to ensure that fishery management is not a contributing factor.”

For Klamath River fall Chinook, National Marine Fisheries Service advised that a “precautionary approach is warranted and underscores the need to carefully consider the factors described in the FMP in setting the ER (exploitation rate).”

“Given the extremely low abundance forecast and resulting low level of allowable fishing mortality, NMFS anticipates harvest opportunity will be substantially constrained in the region between Cape Falcon, Oregon, and Point Sur, California,” the National Marine Fisheries Service added.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council’s preseason report for 2023 indicates that forecasts for fall Chinook salmon on the Klamath River are expected at 103,800 adults, which is roughly half of last years’ forecast and a third of the forecasted total for 2018.

According to Fish and Wildlife, the geographical stock area between Cape Falcon and Point Sur is frequently intercepted by Oregon fisheries and is an important contributor to Oregon’s spring and summer seasons. However, it’s not the first time the agencies have made season cuts along the west coast due to salmon shortages.

In April 2017, the Pacific Fishery Management Council closed commercial fishing along a 200-mile stretch of ocean between Humbug Mountain, Oregon, to Horse Mountain, California, because scientists only expected 11,000 Klamath River fall Chinook adult salmon to return and spawn in the watershed that year.

California shut down its salmon fishing season completely in 2008 and 2009, and fishermen suffered more than $500 million in damages. The fishing season was also cut short in 2016 due to millions of juvenile salmon dying from warm Sacramento River temperatures.

As for upcoming seasons between May 16, 2023, through May 15, 2024, Fish and Wildlife said plans are currently being developed and alternatives would be reviewed. A final season recommendation will be made at a public Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in April.

“Things are not looking good,” Eric Schindler, Fish and Wildlife ocean sampling project leader said in an interview.

“We're still looking at alternatives and there's a variety of things in the mix,” Schindler said. “None of them are good. Unless you're looking at north of Cape Falcon, then it's not bad.”

When asked what the National Marine Fisheries Service meant by ‘ensuring’ that ‘fishery management is not a contributing factor’ to dwindling Chinook salmon populations, Schindler said it’s not necessarily a fishing issue as much as a water issue.

“Well, what we're approaching is what's known as an overfished condition, but the reality is it's not necessarily a fishing problem. It's more related to water management in California drought conditions and where the water is being allocated,” Schindler said. “That's a big part of the equation and that's why the fishermen are highly sensitive to the term overfishing or overfished condition when it really probably didn't have much to do with fishing at all.”

Schindler said in 2022, the commercial troll salmon fishery overperformed dramatically off the coast of California, leading some to speculate that overfishing contributed to deficient Sacramento fall Chinook numbers.

“So out of this meeting so far, we've had concurrence with the commercial and recreational fishermen off California that wanted to shut their season down. The advisers to the Civic Fishery Management Council from California wanted to close everything. And for Oregon, we're looking at largely probably just having recreational coho seasons in the summer period and then in the fall. We're still considering chinook options.”

When asked whether the agencies are receiving positive feedback from fishing communities about the season closure, Schindler said many of them are still in the dark.

“I think a lot of them are not expecting this because they don't think about California, but overall, the community seems to be largely in favor of it,” Schindler said. “But there's always people that want to go fishing, and even the ones that are in favor of the closure want to go fishing. They're just looking at it and realizing they're in a very precarious position right now.”