California bans salmon fishing in coastal waters

Californians won't be eating fresh salmon from the state's coastal waters this year.

Fish and Game officials on Tuesday reluctantly voted to shelter a diminished population of Sacramento River chinook by barring all ocean salmon fishing in state waters, out three miles from shore.

The unprecedented closure will last through April 2009.

The move follows last week's ban on salmon fishing in the 200-mile swath of federal water off California and Oregon.

And on May 9, the state commission is likely to extend the closure to recreational salmon fishing in the Sacramento, American, and other Central Valley rivers. That's never happened before.

All this means consumers will see steep prices for fresh-caught salmon – perhaps more than $30 per pound – if they can find it.

They'll also face tough choices:

Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, urges consumers not to buy farmed salmon, mainly raised on the Atlantic Coast and in British Columbia. Farmed salmon may contain traces of antibiotics and pesticides. Farmed salmon also are reared in floating pens which can pollute ocean waters and spread disease to wild fish.

It's also nearly impossible to distinguish farmed salmon from wild.

"Be careful about your sources of salmon to know whether you're getting a truthful answer or not," said David Goldenberg, executive officer of the California Salmon Council.

Wild-caught salmon available in California this year should be from Alaska. There's also a limited amount of fishing allowed off the coast of Washington state. Anything else is probably farmed.

One exception, for now, is Corti Brothers market on Folsom Boulevard in Sacramento. The gourmet market anticipated a shortage and, two weeks ago, negotiated for 1,000 pounds of frozen wild-caught California salmon from suppliers, said Mike Carroll, the store's meat manager.

On Tuesday the store was selling frozen salmon steaks for $11.99 a pound; $2 a pound more for fillets.

Pete Van Hoecke selected two tail fillets. He'll keep buying, he said, even if prices go up. He also backs the fishing ban.

"You have to manage the fishery or we're going to lose everything," said Van Hoecke, a retired bank regulator.

"Maybe prices are going up to $30 to $40 per pound, maybe not right away," Carroll said. "But the prices are going to go up."

At Scott's Seafood restaurant, on the Sacramento River, Executive Chef Bill John said wild salmon from one supplier has already more than tripled, to $26 per pound. He expects wild salmon will be a rare menu item.

Scott's also serves farm-raised salmon from Scotland, which John called a "superior" product because fish there are raised on organic feed and without artificial ingredients. He worries about fish from other sources.

"Hopefully my partner chefs out there are buying reputable product," he said. "We'll do as much wild-caught stuff as possible, because that's what the guest is looking for. But this year, with the closure, the price is probably going really, really high."

Biologists say closures are needed to protect the region's fall-run chinook, the backbone of the Pacific Coast's salmon fishery. These fish account for as much as 80 percent of salmon caught in California and Oregon.

"That's one of the most painful votes I think we've ever taken," said Richard Rogers, president of the California Fish and Game Commission, of Tuesday's historic vote.

This year the species' population is predicted to hit a historic low – just 58,200 are expected to spawn in the Sacramento, American, Feather and other rivers. That's down from 775,000 in 2002.

Some fishermen said the closures are a necessary evil.

"If we don't do something now, it could be drastic. We could lose the species," said Don Herrold of Rancho Cordova, who has caught salmon in the American River for 50 years.

Fishery experts believe poor ocean conditions in 2005, possibly caused by global warming, eliminated much of the food supply for young salmon entering the ocean that year. Those fish became the 2008 spawners.

Other factors have not been ruled out, including poor habitat and food supply in rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The state Department of Fish and Game estimates the salmon closure will cost the California economy $255 million and 2,263 jobs. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of the state's federal representatives have urged President Bush to declare a disaster to speed up economic aid.

"I think this is the worst year in our lifetime for this to happen," said state Fish and Game Commissioner Jim Kellogg, noting the broader economic woes in effect.

Many in the industry admit they will need government help to survive. Among them are Randy and Charan Thornton, who own the 47-foot Telstar, a charter fishing boat based in Fort Bragg. Salmon make up 50 percent to 70 percent of their business.

"There's a good chance of it putting me out of business," said Randy Thornton, a fisherman for more than 20 years. "It's going to hurt a lot of people, no question about it."

Thornton already has decided not to hire employees he normally adds for salmon season. He also may be forced to give up his office space in Fort Bragg.

Ironically, Thornton paid off his boat in August and was looking forward to greater financial independence.

"I've kept good spirits through it all, but I tell you what: It's constantly testing my perseverance," he said.