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Salmon shrinkage

It could be lights on for four days and lights off for three days in the Pacific fishing hamlet of Brookings this summer, because the ocean fishing season for chinook salmon is shaping up to be the most restrictive for recreation anglers in eight years.

Federal salmon managers are now mulling three options for crafting the chinook and coho fishing seasons off Southern Oregon that not only include cutbacks in fishing days from recent years but also a proposal for a four-day fishing week on chinook.

Poor numbers of fall chinook heading to California's Klamath and Sacramento rivers have the Pacific Fishery Management Council looking at options that pale compared to the wide-open seasons of recent years.

Those options range from losing big chunks of the summer season to moving to a short season with a fishing week of Sunday through Wednesday and no traditional Labor Day weekend fishing dates.

In Brookings, that has ocean guides like Andy Martin worried that some of the predictability in fishing dates that coastal salmon-fishing advocates fought so hard for in the 1990s and early 2000s could be lost.

And lost predictability could mean fewer inland anglers — Brookings' bread-and-butter constituency — will make the trek, either towing their boats or bound for charters, to what typically is one of the top two chinook ports in Oregon. 

"For people from Klamath Falls or Medford who want to come to Brookings for a salmon trip, they need the predictability of a seven-day (fishing) week," says Martin, as he prepares to launch his new charterboat at the Port of Brookings-Harbor. "If not, you come over on a Tuesday and it's rough on Wednesday, you're out of luck.

"But based on what we were hearing last fall, all three options are actually better than what we were expecting," Martin says.

The so-called "Klamath Management Zone" — from Humbug Mountain near Port Orford down to Horse Mountain in Northern California — has its seasons crafted primarily to protect over-fishing on Klamath River-bound chinook.

Drought and poor ocean conditions have been blamed largely for big drops in Klamath chinook estimates. The PFMC this year is predicting 142,200 chinook in the ocean bound for the Klamath, and that's nearly a third of last year’s estimate and less than 20 percent of the 2013 preseason forecast, according to the PFMC.

The most liberal option, Option 1, calls for uninterrupted chinook fishing from May 28 through Aug. 7, then Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3-5. Option 1 includes an Oregon coast-wide, fin-clipped coho season of June 25 through Aug. 7, but it would close earlier if a 30,000-fish quota were met.

Option 3 is also a seven-day fishing week, but the chinook season would be compressed to three short spurts: May 16-31; June 16-30; and Sept. 3-5. It has no fin-clipped coho season for Southern Oregon.

Option 2 would allow fishing Sundays through Wednesdays from June 19 through Aug. 31. It carries a coho season that would start June 25, with a 20,000-fish quota and no Labor Day fishing.

Also new this year is separate options for the California portion of the KMZ, and each option there contains seven-day weekly chinook fishing opportunities.

The end of June and into July often brings the best offshore chinook catches, provided weather conditions and water currents behave and the chinook move north from California waters as predicted.

None of that happened last year, when a dearth of fish conspired with windy days and exceedingly warm near-shore waters to bring Brookings its worst summer of chinook fishing since 2008, when poor chinook numbers squelched all sport and commercial salmon fishing off Southern Oregon and Northern California that summer.

At the Port of Brookings-Harbor, where almost half the boat launchings are by Rogue Valley residents, only 390 chinook were landed in 2015 during a 115-day season, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics. That compares to 5,689 chinook in 2014 and 9,612 in 2013. 

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

A chinook fights off the coast near Brookings last summer. Ocean anglers are likely to have fewer days to fish for salmon this year due to low estimates of returning fish. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch