ILWACO - It was another banner year for fishermen as more than one million salmon were caught off the West Coast by sports and commercial fishermen this summer.
While it was a great summer to catch fish, it was a lousy year to sell them, as the glut of salmon on the market depressed prices and caused many Indian fisherman to pull their nets early.
The summer returns were a boon to recreational fisheries, with charter services doing a land-office business and sports fishermen crowding coastal communities, supporting local economies in the process of landing over 150,000 Chinook and nearly 250,000 coho.
Commercial fishers from California to the Canadian border landed more than 700,000 Chinook, but prices were still grim, reflecting the new economic reality of the salmon industry, brought about by the dominance of the farmed fish segment.
That hard reality was especially evident in prices for Columbia River gillnetters, both Indian and non-Indians. And the farther upriver a fish was caught, the lower the price it fetched.
Tribal gillnetters above Bonneville Dam saw wholesale prices of only 30 cents a pound or so for upriver brights heading for Hanford Reach. Lower river gillnetters were getting almost double that price.
But the lowly tule salmon, the main product of the Spring Creek hatchery above the dam, were fetching only about five cents a pound in the tribal fishing zone.
In fact, some tribal fishers quit early, said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. So many of the low-value tules have shown up this year that marginal profits have become even more meager.
Stuart Ellis, harvest manager for CRITFC, said the tribes would end up catching about 15 percent of the upriver bright run - about 9 percent short of their projected share. But they were expected to land about 15 percent of the B run wild steelhead stock, an ESA-listed run headed for Idaho, which effectively ended their season anyway, since the 15 percent harvest rate on the steelhead is the maximum allowed.
The tribal catch was expected to add up to about 131,000 Chinook, Ellis said, about 34,000 fish fewer than their projected share. Only 300 or so gillnets were catching fish in the tribal zone this year, much less than the 400 to 500 nets in recent times.
Ellis said low prices played a big factor in reducing the size of the fishery, along with a dwindling tribal effort to sell salmon and steelhead directly to the public. He said a brush fire near Cascade Locks during the fishing season pretty much killed the public sales effort.
Non-Indian gillnetters in the Lower Columbia were projected to catch about 60,000 fall Chinook, with sporties catching another 48,000 fish. The combined estimated impact of the catches is nearly 21 percent on the upriver bright run, much higher than the 8 percent allocation in the pre-season harvest agreement.
After huge numbers of Chinook showed up in mid-September, harvest managers revised their pre-season estimate of the upriver bright run upward by 47 percent, to 372,000 fish. The tule run was re-pegged at 181,000, 90 percent higher than the pre-season estimate.
The huge run reflected salmon returns all along the West Coast this year. Preliminary information from the Pacific Fishery Management Council shows offshore Chinook catches for California, Oregon and Washington nearly reached 900,000 Chinook. That's close to harvest managers' latest estimate for the number of fall Chinook entering the Columbia River, the largest since 1942.
With jack counts up, another great run is expected next year. But the number of commercial fishermen chasing them, both tribal and non-Indian, may continue to decline, since poor prices are likely to plague commercial fishermen up and down the coast for the foreseeable future.
The state of Alaska has tracked the decline of fish prices, due largely to the influx of farmed salmon in global markets. In an October report, analysts said Chinook prices have fallen by 70 percent since 1988.
Across-the-board declines have occurred for other species of salmon as well, reducing the ex-vessel value of the state's salmon harvest from $550 million in 1990 to less than $150 million in 2002. Nearly 40 percent of the state's salmon fishermen have bailed out of the business in the last 10 years.