Oregon’s spring ocean salmon season was supposed to open in mid-March, but the National Marine Fisheries Service closed both the recreational and commercial seasons through mid-May in much of the state. Marine agencies expect extremely low returns of California Chinook salmon in the Klamath and Sacramento rivers, meaning the fall-run season could be further restricted. The Pacific Marine Fisheries Council is considering three alternatives for the season, all of which would cancel commercial and recreational Chinook fishing south of Cape Falcon through Sept. 1.
Though the closure is meant to protect future salmon populations, it could mean the loss of a year’s income for fishers along the coast. Barry McCovey, fisheries department director for the Yurok Tribe, and Brett Montague, a commercial salmon troller based in Newport join us to talk about the impacts of the closure.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Oregon’s spring ocean salmon season was supposed to open last week, but the National Marine Fisheries Service closed both the commercial and recreational fisheries through mid-May in much of the state. And with low returns of California Chinook in the Klamath and Sacramento rivers, the fall season could be restricted as well. In a few minutes, we’re going to hear what this will mean for a commercial fisherman based in Newport. But we start with Barry McCovey, he is the fisheries department director for the Yurok Tribe. Barry, welcome back to the show.
Barry McCovey: Oh, thanks for having me.
Miller: What led to this closure?
McCovey: Well, there’s an extremely low number of Chinook salmon, fall Chinook salmon in particular, in the ocean right now based on surveys. We don’t think that there’s going to be enough fish returning to the river to spawn, to keep the population levels at where there’s a harvestable surplus. Both the Sacramento and Klamath River stocks are severely depressed right now and that’s led to all these closures that we’re hearing about.
Miller: What are the different reasons for these low returns, or likely low returns?
McCovey: There’s a number of reasons. I can’t speak specifically to the situation on the Sacramento River, the Yurok Tribe is here in Northern California on the Klamath River and I can speak to the Klamath. There’s just been a lot of issues in the Klamath Basin with drought and poor water availability in the basin and fish diseases. We can look directly at a couple of years ago, these fish that are returning this year would have left the river in 2021. In 2021, those juvenile salmon, as they were leaving the Klamath, were hit really hard with fish diseases because of the drought that we are in and the extremely low flows. So there’s a lot of issues occurring in the river that are leading to these low returns, but there’s probably also issues that are happening out at sea. It’s a combination of things.
Miller: So, given that combination, what needs to happen in order for these populations to rebound?
McCovey: Well, we’re working on that, Dave. I think, as you know, we’ve just started on the largest dam removal in the history of the United States and it’s going to be one of the largest fish restoration projects in the history of the world. Habitat restoration is extremely important. We’re going to open up over 400 miles of spawning habitat to fall Chinook. That’s extremely important and we need to keep pushing on dam removal and habitat restoration so that fish have a place to live and be healthy and spawn and rear in the years to come. But there’s also the issue of water availability and drought and we need to come up with solutions to some of those issues that we’re facing, related to water allocations in the Klamath River.
Miller: Although my understanding is that even in the best case scenario for the restoration efforts you’re talking about, we’re still looking at a, maybe a decades long process, right?
McCovey: Definitely, it’s going to take time. We understand that fish repopulation and recolonization doesn’t happen overnight. So it’s going to take time. But we have to make sure that in the interim, we don’t lose these species. I think that’s why the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen and Tribal fishermen are really trying to be conservative this year so that, as this process moves forward, we have fish to recolonize those areas and we can hopefully recover the species.
Miller: You mentioned Tribal fishermen. Does this closure directly affect Tribal fisheries as well, whether we’re talking about subsistence fishing or fishing for ceremonies?
McCovey: Absolutely. The Tribal allocations are dictated by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council just like the ocean and recreational fisheries are. And so when there’s years like this of low abundance, tribes suffer just like everyone else suffers. We’re looking at a really, really low return on the Klamath and that means that there aren’t going to be many opportunities for the Tribal people here in the basin to harvest fall salmon this year, unfortunately.
Miller: How common is it to have a season closed like this?
McCovey: I believe the last time this happened was in 2017. Before that, I don’t know if it happened. As we move forward in time, we’re seeing really, really low returns. This year, it’s low enough to close the fishery, but it’s been teetering on that level for a number of years now, in the Klamath River in particular. It’s with this ongoing mega drought that we’re in and hopefully, what we’re seeing here in Northern California this past winter is going to help pull us out of this. But the past 8 to 10 years have been devastating to the river and to the salmon.
Miller: What’s the best and the worst case scenario for next year?
McCovey: Well, the best case scenario is that when the fish out-migrated from the river in 2018, they had a better situation than they had in 2017. We can look back and see what that looked like and hopefully that was good. Hopefully they had favorable ocean conditions when they were at sea. And then we can start to think about maybe a bigger run, where we would be able to harvest fish for commercial, subsistence, ceremonial and whatever uses Tribes might need and whatever uses other groups might need, recreation and commercial uses.
So, that’s what we’re hopeful for, is that the three-year-old fish returning next year had a better scenario in their life history. The worst case scenario is obviously a repeat of this, and we absolutely can’t have that. These fish return at two, three, four, sometimes five, but the majority of these fish return as three year olds. And if we start seeing something - a population crash or decline like this - three years in a row, that’s when we will really start to be worried about the effects to the species as a whole.
Miller: Barry, thanks very much.
McCovey: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Miller: Barry McCovey is the fisheries department director for the Yurok Tribe.
For another perspective on the salmon fishery closure, I’m joined now by Brett Montague. He is a commercial salmon troller based in Newport on the fishing vessel, JoElle. Brett, welcome to the show.
Brett Montague: Thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us, especially after coming in, you told us, at 5am from crabbing, after being out at sea for like 26 hours. So I appreciate it, not getting any sleep and still talking to us. If this were a normal fishing season, what would you be doing right now?
Montague: Hopefully today I’d be out on the water searching for salmon, hopefully catching a few.
Miller: Instead, what is your plan now, in terms of, of pivoting or changing your plans for the next few months?
Montague: Well, like you mentioned before, I’m still crabbing, so I still have to work, because the season’s been taken away, so I can crab still for a little bit. But as far as salmon goes, I’m waiting, hopefully going to be able to go fish some later in the year.
Miller: Have you experienced a closure like this before?
Montague: Me? Personally, I have not, but the other trollers that have been around longer have seen full seasons shut down, yes.
Miller: You said you’re hoping to fish later. My understanding is there are some big question marks about what’s going to happen in the fall. Are you planning to fish before then for salmon?
Montague: Well, I was lucky enough to lease a state of Washington troll permit, so I’ll most likely be headed up there in May and June, where we’ll have a little bit of opportunity there to catch some Chinook.
Miller: What would it mean for you? So, you’re based in Newport, but if you’re going to be fishing out of Washington, what does that mean?
Montague: That means I have to travel up there and more or less live up there out of their ports, for two months. So I won’t have the opportunity to really come home much in that time.
Miller: And I don’t imagine that’s something that every fisherman based in Newport or further south could do. First of all, you had to actually get that lease, and then it also means you’d have to somehow be able to not be at home for a big chunk of time.
Montague: Exactly. And the number of permits in Washington is somewhere less than 200, so there’s no way all of Oregon’s trollers could go up there and fish. I was lucky enough that I knew another fisherman who wasn’t going to use it and I was able to touch base with him and lease that. But again, this all comes with costs. You have to pay for this license in Oregon and you’re going to have to pay for the Washington license as well, just for the opportunity to go catch a fish.
Miller:. And then there’s just all of your existing costs. Can you give us a sense for the amount of income that you could lose this year because of the closure?
Montague: Salmon makes up more than half of my year on the JoElle. So it’s a pretty large hit. I’m looking for other revenue streams, obviously still working on a crab boat. But yeah, salmon is a huge chunk of what the trollers here catch and we rely on it every year.
Miller: You’re pivoting to some extent by going north. But what would it take to fish for something else? How possible would that even be for you or other commercial fishermen?
Montague: There are some opportunities for open access groundfish, but again, that’s going to come with a large cost. You have to then, like you’re saying, pivot your whole boat, your whole fishery, to try to target a different species.
Miller: Meaning, putting different equipment on your boat?
Montague: Yeah, our boats are more or less like erector sets so we can change them up and target different species.
Miller: What have you heard from other fishermen about how they’re going to weather this closure?
Montague: “Let’s hope for a good tuna season.” That’s what I hear around the docks, like Albacore will show up later in the summer. But most guys are more or less have their heads in their hands right now. What are we gonna do?
Miller: Is Albacore something that you would also be fishing for?
Montague: Yes, the JoElle does go out quite a bit and it makes up about the other half of our year.
Miller: How do you balance the frustration, or that might be maybe even too mild a word, of losing all this income with the longer framed desire to keep these populations healthy, so you can keep fishing into the future?
Montague: It’s a tough one because yeah, we need to go make money, but none of us want to catch the last salmon, honestly. The ocean is our livelihood and we love being out there. So if you have to take a break and it’ll bounce back, someone like me who was fortunate enough to lease a Washington permit, I’m ok with that. But there are other guys who can’t take the hit. I’m still young enough to be able to work in other fisheries. But other guys that have boat payments, have insurance, have moorage, and they can’t travel, they’re going feel the hit a lot more.
Miller: You say you’re young. How old are you?
Montague: I’m 39.
Miller: Is that about as young as it gets in terms of fishermen these days who have their own boats?
Montague: I’d say so. I think so.
Miller: Brett Montague, thanks for giving us some of your time and best of luck to you.
Montague: Thanks for having us on. Really appreciate it.
Miller: That’s Brett Montague, a commercial salmon troller based out of Newport. He fishes out of the fishing vessel, JoElle.
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