By MARK FREEMAN
While predictions for a near-record chinook salmon run last year never materialized, ocean biologists are forecasting strong returns to key chinook rivers in Southern Oregon and Northern California and anticipate good ocean-fishing seasons this year.
Last year's forecast of almost 1.6 million chinook bound for Northern California's Klamath River and more than 819,000 for the Sacramento River overshot reality by 33 percent.
Biologists' estimates for this year are closer to what actually occurred in 2012.
Though lower, this year's estimates are still strong enough for biologists to expect solid commercial and recreational seasons for Southern Oregon and Northern California port towns looking to be home to extended fishing seasons.
"We're still looking at pretty good chinook numbers down here," says Todd Confer, Gold Beach District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We're probably looking at pretty open fisheries this year like last year. At least, that's what we're hoping."
Members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council are studying those numbers this weekend in Tacoma as they mull options for this year's sport and commercial salmon seasons off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts.
The meetings, which began Wednesday, were scheduled to wrap up Monday.
The council, which advises the Department of Commerce on ocean fishing seasons, typically comes out with three season options for the various sport and commercial fisheries. After public comment, the council will reconvene April 5-11 in Portland to set the seasons, which must be approved by the Department of Commerce before they begin.
Southern Oregon and Northern California coastal towns pay closest attention to the region called the Klamath Management Zone, where chinook bound for rivers like the Rogue, Klamath and Sacramento all mill together for two or more years before returning to their home rivers to spawn.
The seasons are crafted to protect the weakest of those stocks from over-harvest, with the Klamath usually leading the way.
Last year's Klamath estimates were the highest in 31 years. Coupled with big estimates of chinook bound for the Sacramento, they allowed the PFMC to craft a recreational season that stretched from May 1 through Labor Day and an Oregon commercial season south of the Port Orford area that saw monthly quotas of 1,000 to 2,000 chinook -- the highest in a decade.
But the post-season data showed biologists over-estimated the numbers of 3-year-old Klamath and Sacramento fish, which dominate the ocean catch, by an extra third. In some years, the forecast underestimated the run by 300 percent and in some years the run has been overestimated by more than 200 percent.
Based on last year's return of 2-year-old "jack" salmon, this year's PFMC Salmon Technical Team gave the council estimates of 834,208 Sacramento fish ages 3 through 5 in now in the ocean.
This year's Klamath preseason estimate is 728,100 chinook.
"It may not look so good compared to the 2012 inflated forecast," Confer says. "The forecast still looks very robust to me," Confer says.
The Rogue's fall chinook is forecast at 26,000 fish ages 3 through 5. That's the highest since 2003, according to the technical team's report.
The technical team's report does not include a preseason forecast for the Rogue's spring chinook because those fish enter the Rogue on their spawning run from March through May. That's generally before the sport and commercial seasons so they contribute at lower rates to the ocean catches than fall chinook, which generally are at sea during fishing seasons.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.