updated 3/15/2008 12:52:35 AM ET 2008-03-15T04:52:35

Federal fisheries managers on Friday took the initial step toward imposing what could be the strictest limits ever on West Coast salmon fishing amid a precipitous drop in fish returning to California's Sacramento Valley.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously adopted three options for sport and commercial fishing off the Pacific Coast, including an unprecedented complete shutdown of fishing off California and Oregon.

"This is a major disaster. We've never had one ever like this," council chairman Donald Hansen said after the vote. "It will have a major impact on California commercial fisheries for salmon, recreational fisheries, California charters."

The closest the council has come to halting all salmon fishing was 2006, when a decline in Northern California's Klamath River run forced severe restrictions on the number of fish caught.

The other possible strategies include severely limiting fishing or allowing fishermen to catch and release salmon for scientific projects. Both those options would require the federal government to grant an emergency rule because the salmon numbers are so low.

Final action expected in April
The fishery council is expected to decide which action to take in April during its meeting in Seattle.

"I think the likeliest outcome this year is no one will put a hook in the water," said Humboldt County fisherman Dave Bitts, who was attending the weeklong meeting in Sacramento.

The Sacramento River chinook run is usually one of the most plentiful on the West Coast, providing the bulk of the fish caught by commercial trollers off California and Oregon.

But this year's returns — even with no fishing allowed — are expected to reach less than half the council's goal for spawning a new generation. It marks the third straight year of declines, and the outlook for next year is no better.

After years of declining salmon runs, few fishermen rely solely on salmon for a living. Supplies of farm-raised fish and sockeye from Alaska are expected to remain plentiful in supermarkets and restaurants, but there will be few chinook. Also known as king salmon, they are the type of salmon most prized by chefs and sportsmen.

Salmon fishing fleets in decline
Many coastal communities that still have salmon fleets have yet to recover from long-standing downturns in fishing and timber.

"It's going to have a big effect on our coastal communities," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

It is the third straight year of hardship.

In 2006, the season was curtailed to protect struggling chinook returns to the Klamath River in Northern California. Last year, catches were poor despite a relatively open fishing season.

Congress authorized some aid for fishermen after the 2006 seasons, and California representatives are looking for more this year.

Resource disaster declaration sought
The council's action on Friday prompted Schwarzenegger and the governors of Oregon and Washington to urge the federal government to declare a resource disaster if the fisheries are closed or severely restricted. Such a declaration would make communities eligible for federal aid.

Closing fisheries in California and most of Oregon also could lead to higher salmon prices for restaurants and consumers who would be forced to buy Alaska-caught salmon instead of locally caught fish.

In most years, about 90 percent of wild chinook salmon caught off the California coast originate in the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

Only about 90,000 adult salmon returned to the Sacramento River and its tributaries to spawn last year, the second lowest number on record and well below the government's conservation goals, according to federal fishery regulators. That's down from 277,000 in 2006 and a record high of 804,000 in 2002.

Biologists predict this year's salmon returns could be even lower because the number of returning young male fish, known as "jacks," hit an all-time low last year. Only about 2,000 of them were recorded, which is far below the 40,000 counted in a typical year.

Other West Coast rivers also have seen declines in their salmon runs, though not as steep as California's Central Valley.

No single cause of collapse
Experts are uncertain about what caused the collapse, pointing to dozens of factors.

Marine scientists blame an unusual weather pattern that triggered a collapse of the marine food web in 2005, the year most of this year's returning adults were entering the ocean as juveniles.

Fishermen, environmental groups and American Indians largely blame the salmon's troubles on poor water quality and water diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Specifically, they say state and federal agencies have not had the money or personnel to enforce laws protecting habitat and water quality, and that the massive pumping of delta water to cities and farms has created a deadly gauntlet for young salmon trying to reach the ocean.

"We have a huge, huge delta problem," said Dick Pool, president of Pro-Troll, a fishing equipment company based in Concord. "It's destroying our fish. And if we don't fix it, we're going to continue to lose all these resources."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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