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Expected chinook numbers will spawn high hopes

BROOKINGS — For the past four years, customers who asked Dick and Casey's Gourmet Seafood owner Julie Tomlinson for a fresh Oregon-caught chinook salmon from the waters just outside her door have received an embarrassingly ironic rebuff.

"That's what everybody who walks through my door wants — a salmon that's come in right off the boat," Tomlinson says. "But I haven't had one since 2006."

But Oregon's signature salmon should be back in Tomlinson's display case as soon as early May.

Oregon's commercial and sport-fishing fleet will have their most liberal seasons in four years under seasons set Thursday by the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland.

Thanks to increased numbers of chinook bound this year to California's Klamath and Sacramento rivers, the fleets fishing out of Southern Oregon ports like the Port of Brookings-Harbor will see longer seasons and more available salmon.

The sport season for chinook — the largest of salmon and the prime target for both fleets — opens May 29 from Humbug Mountain near Port Orford south to the California border.

It remains open through Sept. 6, with daily limits of two chinook per angler.

Also, a fin-clipped coho salmon fishery targeting only hatchery-bred fish opens June 26 along the Oregon coast and runs until Sept. 6 or whenever a 30,000-coho limit is reached.

It will be the first full summer season of sport-fishing from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend in three years.

Last year brought only a token sport season around Labor Day.

Southern Oregon's commercial troll fleet opens May 1 for one month, a period when chinook numbers are usually greater off the California coast.

"Historically, we don't have a lot of fish here in May," Tomlinson says. "Hopefully, the guys can get some early."

After shutting down for a month, the commercial season will restart July 1, when the Southern Oregon fleet will troll for salmon until the boats fill a 1,500-fish quota. Another round of fishing opens Aug.1 and sports a separate 1,500-fish quota.

For the past two summers there's been no commercial chinook fishing off the Southern Oregon coast except for token near-shore fall seasons and the majority of those fish went to restaurants.

This year's seasons should produce chinook for more markets, but to what extent is not yet known.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission, says fishermen and wholesalers have yet to agree on a price and commercial fishermen along the coast may end up hopping from port to port to fish when open dates are available.

"We're thrilled to have a season in Oregon along most of the coast and thrilled our fishermen are able to get back to sea," she said.

The commercial fleet has been left at bay the past two years because chinook returns to the Sacramento River have been below minimum thresholds, triggering unprecedented chinook fishing shutdowns for the sport and commercial fleet in California.

But forecasts this year projected 245,000 chinook would head up the Sacramento this year should no fishing on them be allowed. Since the Sacramento's minimum conservation goal is for 122,000 spawning adults, PFMC members saw room for the fisheries to resume or expand this summer.

Also, the Klamath River is expected to reach its spawning goal of 35,000 fish, PFMC forecasts show.

Sacramento and Klamath salmon numbers — or lack of numbers — drive the chinook seasons off Southern Oregon and northern California coasts, where they intersect with chinook bound for the Rogue, Chetco and other rivers. Because the fish mix offshore and the council must manage for the weakest runs, all the ocean fishing in the region has been affected by the California rivers' problems.

Forecasts call for severe downturns in future Sacramento returns, so the sport and commercial fleets will take advantage of the spike in returning chinook during this season's fishery.

For Tomlinson, that means no longer flying in frozen chinook from Alaska to keep salmon in her display cases.

Oregon salmon caught by trollers will be back, and so will Tomlinson's business, she says.

It's about 40 percent of my income, so it's huge," Tomlinson says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.