The Salmon Fishing Season Is Canceled

A dramatic decline in the stocks of the Pacific Coast fish leads to a drastic decision.

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Professional salmon fisherman Rusty Boro steers his boat into dock in Half Moon Bay, Calif., after catching crabs.

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SAN FRANCISCO—Diners: The time has come to say goodbye to low-priced salmon. This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal agency that regulates the fishing industry on the West Coast, announced that it was canceling the entire fishing season for chinook salmon in California and Oregon, the first time the agency has taken such a step since it was established 22 years ago. The council has been wrestling since January with the mysterious disappearance of a huge number of salmon in the Sacramento River, where most of the fish on the Pacific Coast go to spawn. This fall, fewer than 70,000 fish were counted in the river, down from more than 800,000 six years ago. Experts still don't know exactly why the salmon population has dropped so precipitously, but most think it is due to a combination of temperature changes in the ocean and man-made water diversions in the Sacramento Delta. There are expected to be about 50,000 fish in the river this fall.

The management council, after several months of discussing other options, decided the situation was too delicate to allow any fishing this year, leaving the Pacific Coast fishing industry, which brings in almost $30 million to the economy each year, without many options. Dave Bitts, a fisherman based in Eureka, Calif., estimates that about two thirds of his income comes from chinook. "This is the most robust fish on the West Coast," says Bitts. "Our challenge every year is to get the best access to Sacramento stock that we can. Now, it's gone." Recreational fishermen, who will also be affected by the ban, spend about $4 billion on their sport every year, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency yesterday and said he had sent a letter to President Bush asking for federal disaster assistance. When a much smaller-scale salmon run on the Klamath River in Oregon declined in 2006, Congress approved $60 million in aid for fishermen. Those checks, though, didn't start arriving until a few months ago. "California's salmon runs are a treasured state resource and provide significant contributions to our economy and our environment," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Today's decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council underscores our responsibility to quickly free up state and federal resources to help the fishing industry cope with the devastating economic impacts closing the season will have."

The price of salmon, meanwhile, is likely to go through the roof. Fishermen were selling fresh-caught salmon for about $1.75 a pound three years ago, but that price is well over $5 a pound today. Restaurants and supermarkets may still be able to stock up on Atlantic salmon or fly fresh fish down from Alaska, but prices, for the foreseeable future, are only going up.

Fishermen, for their part, will face a much more serious problem. "We've just gotten the public educated to the wonderful difference between the wild and farmed fish," says Bitts. "Demand is up, people want our product really bad, and now it's been whisked out from under us." Where the fish have gone—and when they will be back—no one seems to know.