updated 2/18/2009 6:16:00 PM ET 2009-02-18T23:16:00

A record-low number of chinook salmon returned to rivers in California's Central Valley last year, indicating that severe restrictions on salmon fishing are likely again this year, federal regulators say.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that in 2008 a total of 66,264 natural and hatchery chinook or "king" salmon adults were estimated to have returned to the Sacramento River basin to spawn, the lowest estimate on record.

The council uses the estimates to determine if it should recommend limits on commercial and recreational fishing.

"Our team is putting together the forecast this week, will come out some time next week," Chuck Tracy, the salmon staff officer for the council, said Wednesday. The final recommendation on fishing limits will be made in April.

The numbers are down from about 90,000 in 2007, which led to bans in 2008 on commercial and recreational salmon fishing off the coasts of California and most of Oregon.

The sharp drop in the king salmon that swam from the Pacific Ocean through San Francisco Bay to spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries last fall is part of broader decline in wild salmon runs in rivers across the West in recent years.

In the Sacramento Delta, fishermen and regulators believe large pumps used to move water around for farming and other uses is to blame for the falling numbers. Others say changes in the ocean due to greenhouse gas pollution also are killing the fish.

Tracy said returns in the Klamath River, the next big salmon spawning river north of the Sacramento River, were higher overall but still fewer than regulators had expected.

Regulators and fishermen had expected this year would be tough.

"Realistically, we were looking at the fact that we wouldn't have a season this year. We're looking at 2010 before we can fish again," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, and industry group.

Grader said the fishermen's association has saved millions of dollars in federal assistance received after the collapse of the Pacific Coast salmon industry.

"That money sitting in the account will be distributed to keep people alive for this year," Grader said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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