West Coast fisheries managers voted Thursday to cancel all commercial salmon fishing off the California and Oregon coasts this year.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to allow limited recreational fishing of coho salmon on holiday weekends off the Oregon coast, but no recreational fishing off California after several members of the panel argued that every salmon counts.
Scientists and government officials are expecting this year's West Coast salmon season to be one of the worst in history, because of the collapse of Sacramento River chinook, one of the West Coast's biggest wild salmon runs.
Although commercial salmon fishing off the Washington coast is scheduled to begin May 1, fisheries managers do not predict a good season off either the north or south Pacific coasts.
"For the entire West Coast, this is the worst in history," Don McIsaac, executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, said before several close votes led to the fisheries plan for 2008.
The council's decision still must be confirmed by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of salmon management.
Even before the vote, however, officials were on to the next step: disaster relief for fishermen, said Mariam McCall, an attorney with the fisheries service.
The governors of Washington, Oregon and California have already signed letters seeking a disaster declaration. Congress will be asked to make a fast decision on money to alleviate the suffering of fishermen and any other negative effects the cutback might have, said Brian Gorman, a NOAA Fisheries spokesman.
Scientists are studying the causes of the Sacramento River chinook collapse, with possible factors ranging from ocean conditions and habitat destruction to dam operations and agricultural pollution. But a proposal to allow limited fishing for scientific purposes was struck down by the panel.
In 2006, the salmon season extending from Cape Falcon, Ore., about 30 miles south of the mouth of the Columbia River, south to the Mexican border, also was severely restricted. Congress granted disaster relief totaling $62 million for fishermen in Oregon and California, Gorman said.
Although the nature of the problem is different this year, the impact will be at least as broadly felt, McCall said.
"This is such a difficult situation," she said.
In 2007, average quotas for the southern coast were allowed, while fishing was restricted north of Cape Falcon to the Canadian border.
The Sacramento River chinook run is usually one of the most productive on the coast, but counts last fall found a record low number of chinook returning to California's Central Valley.
San Francisco commercial fisherman Barbara Emley said the signs of this year's problems with the chinook run have been obvious for a few years.
"This has unmasked the issue behind the problem," said Emley, who has fished for salmon with her husband for more than 20 years. Too few juvenile fish survive to swim out to the Pacific Ocean, she said.
Two years ago, busloads of fisherman attended the Pacific Fishery council's meetings to protest the proposed cutbacks, McIsaac said. This year, little opposition has been voiced.
"I believe that the council is doing what it has to do," Emley said, adding that the real problem is out of the hands of the council, which can only regulate fishing, not other industries and government agencies affecting the salmon.
Emley said she saw this action coming while out on her boat last year, when she and her husband saw so few juvenile salmon.
"That's one of the reasons you may not see a lot of resistance in the building today," she said. "We know it's real."
Consumers can expect to have a hard time finding chinook at stores later this year, but they will still be able to buy farm-raised salmon, as well as wild sockeye from Alaska.