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Anglers wait for decision on fishing ban

Recreational ocean anglers are still waiting to see whether the federal government will sign off on a short ocean salmon season snatched last week from the brink of closure.

And far more is riding on Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez's John Hancock than just a couple months of chinook fishing at sea.

Gutierrez has yet to endorse the sport and commercial fishing seasons crafted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which was considering a year-long chinook fishing ban on 700 miles of the U.S. Pacific coast to boost this year's returns to the Klamath River.

After NOAA-Fisheries biologists last week said they would accept some ocean catches of Klamath chinook, the PFMC on Thursday set what many consider to be a liberal recreation season for the Klamath Management Zone ports between Port Orford and Manzanita, Calif.

The season allows fishing from mid-May through Fourth of July and keeps the two-chinook limit, but it keeps the recreational fleet off salmon during most of July and all of August ' the hot months for those fishing out of Brookings.

— Considering that commercial fishermen from Florence south to Fort Bragg, Calif., have no chinook fishing this year, a bad season doesn't look so bad to coastal anglers and the businesses that cater to them.

It's better than no fishing, says Roger Johnson, who owns the Driftwood Mobile Home and RV Park in Brookings. I think people will come over, fish May and June and leave instead of sticking around most of the summer.

You go down there with poor expectations and come back with something, Johnson says.

But the lack of chatter ' and lack of authorization ' from Gutierrez is deafening to Jim Welter, a Brookings sport-fishing advocate who helped convince the PFMC to keep open the recreational season.

Normally, the NOAA-Fisheries and the commerce secretary have signed off on the PFMC recommendations by now. Every day that goes by without an authorization is another day that NOAA-Fisheries could renege on last week's agreement to support an emergency rule that would allow the fishery to go forward.

That makes me nervous, Welter says. When we got it, I was 75 percent sure it would go through. Now, I'm down to saying it's 50-50.

NOAA-Fisheries officials, however, say their agency biologists are not tweaking the already tweaked recommendations. Agency officials are merely giving it the required legal and biological reviews before the secretary is asked to sign it.

NOAA is not free to impose a wholly new proposal, says Todd Ungerecht, a NOAA-Fisheries policy advisor in the agency's Northwest Region Office in Seattle. They have to gauge the biology of the proposal and say 'yea' or 'nay' to that.

And extra days don't mean nay. It just means it's taking some time and being careful, Ungerecht says.

I wouldn't read too much into this, Ungerecht says. There's a process that has to happen. They just want to make sure they've done what they need to do.

Frankly, I think they would like to get it done very soon, he says.

Soon couldn't come too soon as well for rockfish anglers and the biologists who manage them. That's because the summer rockfish season hinges on what happens to the salmon.

If Gutierrez doesn't authorize the season, a recreational closures on salmon season likely would crash the already tentative 2006 rockfish season which already is the most restrictive ever for Oregon.

The season started Jan. — with a six-fish aggregate marine limit designed to stretch out Oregon's metric-ton quota for its recreational black rockfish catch as long as possible. A third straight mid-season closure isn't considered an if. It's clearly a when, and the possibility of when jumps from fall to summer without the recreational salmon fishing.

Before the PFMC vote, members of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's marine program feared that no salmon fishing would shift even more anglers onto rockfish at precisely the wrong time.

Marine program spokesman Brandon Ford says fishery managers were talking about cutting the limit from six to five as early as June. They also were expecting the possibility of shortening the fishing week if the extra pressure threatened to gobble up too much of Oregon's recreational black rockfish quota of 324.5 metric tons, Ford says.

The important thing would be just to make it through to Labor Day, Ford says.

The PFMC's 11th-hour change to its recreational season proposal, if signed, will provide some breathing room for rockfish.

KMZ salmon fishing won't occur during July and August, when the lion's share of the black rockfish are caught. But it at least provides a chance that the season could stretch into October like it did last year.

Actually, I think everybody's breathing a sigh of relief, says Ford, who is based in Newport. Now that there's some opportunity on salmon, we might be able to hang onto the groundfish bag a little longer, anyway.

Ideally, Oregon's recreational fleet will catch lots of chinook in the Klamath Zone, which does not operate on a quota basis, and then work slowly at filling the hatchery coho quota of 20,000 fin-clipped fish.

But no one knows, and no one will know, until Gutierrez puts his pen to the paper.

I, frankly, don't have an answer to exactly what's going to happen, Ungerecht says.