Drought-plagued West Coast faces potential ocean salmon fishing ban

A large swath of the West Coast that’s been dealing with drought could soon see a ban on ocean salmon fishing.

The ocean salmon fishing season is set to be prohibited this year off the coast of California and much of Oregon. This would only be the second time in 15 years that this could happen.

“There will be no wild-caught California salmon to eat unless someone has still got some vacuum-sealed last year in their freezer,” said John McManus of the Golden State Salmon Association.

Much of the salmon caught off Oregon originate in California’s Klamath and Sacramento rivers.

This does not include Washington, where fishing will go ahead, according to the Washington Trollers Association. Both the WTA president and its executive director said salmon stocks in Washington are healthy enough for the season to go forward. The association also said it is looking forward to providing sustainably caught salmon for customers when the season begins on May 1.

For California and Oregon, the situation is far different. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the forecasts for the Chinook salmon population are some of the lowest since 2008. It’s a similar situation in Oregon, where population estimates from the Klamath River are some of the lowest since 1997.

The ban would be a huge blow to many West Coast commercial fishermen.

“Probably a third of my income won’t be available this year. Some of the projects I was going to do on the boat I’m not going to do. I mean, you’re going to tighten up your belt. We’re not going to spend any money. We’re going to be extra, extra careful,” said San Francisco-based fisherman, Bob Maharry.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the authority responsible for setting ocean salmon seasons off the Pacific coast, is expected to meet in early April and could formally approve the closure of Chinook salmon fishing along the coast from Cape Falcon in northern Oregon to the California-Mexico border.

The salmon season is expected to open as usual north of Cape Falcon, including in the Columbia River and off Washington’s coast.

University of Washington studies Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Professor Christopher Anderson looks at markets for salmon and said the ban could have a huge impact on the fish market.

“If we are the primary supplier of fresh wild salmon for the West Coast because fishing is impossible in other places, that’s going to mean we have better markets for our salmon, even though there may not be as many salmon available,” said Anderson, who added that it could also mean higher prices.

The WTA said that most commercial fishing operations cannot come to Washington to fish. The organization’s president said that some very long-tenured fishing operations have permits to fish in all three states on the West Coast, but that’s not very common.

Some fishing operations are banking on the unusually wet winter to bring some relief, but that may not impact the ban that could be coming.

Businesses tied to salmon want the government to declare the situation a federal disaster so they can receive aid. As the market shrinks, more restaurants turn to farm-raised salmon, while gear suppliers stop stocking the proper equipment to fish for Chinook.

Eric Schindler, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s ocean salmon project leader, said he “was not expecting it to be this drastic,” assuming the year would bring restrictions but not a full closure for most of Oregon.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.