updated 3/9/2006 10:05:38 AM ET 2006-03-09T15:05:38

In two actions reflecting the dire straits of fish species along the West Coast, federal fish managers banned bottom trawling in 150,000 square miles of federal waters and recommended not allowing salmon fishing from California to Oregon this season.

In making the trawling decision Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a proposal crafted by environmentalists and the fishing industry that would have covered twice as much area.

The agency also decided against listing 13 oil derricks within the waters as “habitat areas of particular concern,” a designation that might have slowed efforts by some environmentalists and coastal residents to have the structures removed.

The ban was spurred by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that accused the federal government of mismanaging fish habitat.

Janis Searles, a senior counsel for Oceana, one of the groups, said she was glad the derricks weren’t granted special protection but disappointed the trawling ban didn’t cover a wider area.

Defenders of the platforms said millions of fish have adopted the derricks as habitat and could die if the structures were removed.

“We’ve got extremely valuable habitat there, and the habitat seems to be disregarded,” said Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers, a conservation group that protects fishing interests.

The new regulations cover federal waters that extend from three miles to 200 miles off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.

The 150,000 square miles where trawling was banned were listed as “essential fish habitat,” a designation that requires federal agencies to try to protect them.

Trawl fishing is already limited in California state waters and banned in Washington waters. Other types of fishing are allowed in the no-trawl zones.

Environmentalists said trawling has contributed to an economic disaster resulting from overfishing and poor ocean conditions.

The trawling decision was designed to protect coral beds, kelp forests, rocky reefs and other sensitive fish habitat from damage by weighted nets used to scoop up bottom-dwelling species.

Salmon concerns
The salmon recommendation follows concerns that fewer mature chinook salmon are spawning to replace the fish that are dying off.

The suggestion, made this week to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, would shut down fishing along 700 miles of coastline, from Oregon’s Cape Falcon to California’s Point Sur, just south of San Francisco.

Fisherman Dave Bitts, vice president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman Associations, a California fishing lobby, said closing the salmon season will be disastrous. One closed season will ruin the fleet, Bitts said, and all the businesses that service fishing boats. He estimated the value of the California salmon business at $150 million.

“If we can’t fish, we’re broke,” he said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service recommendation is only one the council must consider as it meets in Seattle this week, but it carries great weight. The council is an advisory body to NMFS, which ultimately sets harvest limits. A final recommendation for NMFS is expected when the council meets again in April in Sacramento, Calif.

Klamath River chinook populations have fallen well below required limits for the last several years, said NMFS spokesman Peter Dygert. Dygert encouraged the council to consider other recommendations, but cautioned that NMFS is unlikely to approve a proposal without an emergency closure.

Dell Simmons, a NMFS biologist, gave the council a bleak picture of salmon populations for the season. For the third year in a row, he said, the number of mature chinook salmon leaving the ocean to spawn in the Klamath River is expected to fall below the 35,000 minimum.

Would be largest salmon closure
If approved, this would be the largest closure of a salmon fishery, said Frank Lockhart, director of NMFS’ northwest sustainable fisheries division. If the season is closed, the government would work to expedite federal disaster relief for fishermen, Lockhart said.

Fishermen said the problem in the Klamath isn’t fishing harvests, it’s a sick river.

Jim Anderson, spokesman for the California Salmon Council, said lower river levels and warmer river temperatures cause parasites that kill the fish. He pointed to river dams as a major contributor to the problems.

“It’s getting harder and harder to make a living doing this,” said fisherman Matthew O’Donnell of Crescent City, Calif. “It’s a shame.”

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