Scientists and fishermen are hoping this year's salmon season will be a repeat of the robust 2012 season, the best year since a sudden crash of the Chinook salmon population in 2007 forced a two-year moratorium on fishing.

"There are a large number out there and they are doing pretty well ... I imagine we'll see a pretty good year," said James Phillips, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Ocean Salmon Project.

Anglers and scientists got their first look at some key data last week from the 2012 fishing and spawning seasons up and down the West Coast, which is used to predict the nature of the upcoming season. That data showed that 2012 was the best since at least the early 2000s, particularly in the fisheries fed by the Klamath River along the California and Oregon border.

"Last season was probably the best season in a generation on the Klamath; it was an excellent year," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Harry Morse said.

Last week's data presentation was the first step in the annual process of determining the length and terms of the commercial and sports salmon seasons at sea and in the rivers. Members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the multi-state body that sets the rules for the season, will meet again in Tacoma, Wash., later this week, and at various coastal locations through early April.

The council is expected to make its final decision by April 11. The sport fishing season could open in places as early as April, depending on local conditions, and run through the fall. Commercial seasons vary widely by location, sometimes lasting as little as two weeks or as long as five months.

Commercial fishermen in 2012 had the best year since 2004, according to state and federal data, with $13million worth of fish hauled in, bringing in an average of $5.17 a pound, nearly double the price per pound eight years previously.

The one bleak spot in the otherwise promising data is the continuing decline of the number of Chinook that breed in the Sacramento River and its tributaries during the winter time. That population, or "run," was once a mainstay of the fisheries along the coast along Sonoma County and below San Francisco, but now lags far behind the fish that spawn in the fall and spring. Fewer than 2,700 of the winter Chinook made it back upriver to spawn in 2012, compared with more than 300,000 in the benchmark fall Chinook run.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced at last week's meeting that it would lower the amount of the winter run that fishermen could harvest, from 13.7 percent in 2012 to 12.9 percent. That may not seem like a dramatic difference, but it is alarming to the fishing industry, which is already facing restricted seasons everywhere south of Point Arena.

Roger Thomas, who has run a passenger fishing vessel out of Sausalito for decades, said recreational fishing boats like his will very likely be forced off the water during June and July, normally the high season for vacationers and tourists, his paying clients. The commercial fishermen, meanwhile, will probably face even more time off the water than last year, but when and how much is not yet set.

"It's going to be a real economic hurt," said Thomas, who is also chairman of the board of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, "but we realize that we have to meet the Endangered Species Act and we have to accept it."

Since there is no way for fishermen to distinguish the winter run salmon out at sea from other breeding populations, state and federal officials have to accept that some of the endangered fish will be harvested, said Michael O'Farrell, a research fish biologist for the NMFS. The only way to guarantee the survival of the winter run, therefore, is to place limits on the entire season for all kinds of salmon that mix freely in the region.

The final rules could involve restricting the length of the season, blacking out certain dates, restricting where fish could be caught, or changing the size limits to protect fish in certain age groups. The council will work out those details during its meetings this month.

"There may have to be some closures ... it's not clear how long those closures might be or where they might be," he said.

The cause of the decline of the winter run salmon in the area is not well understood yet, but researchers say it must be due in part to the heavy urbanization in the region, combined with runoff from the intensive agriculture in the Central Valley, along the route of many of the tributaries of the Sacramento River.

It also is affected by the diversion of water from the Sacramento River and San Joaquin Delta to supply homes and farms in central and southern California. Not only does the diversion reduce the amount of water available to provide spawning grounds, the huge pumps that draw out much of that water kill many juvenile fish, though it is not yet clear how many.

Sea-going fishermen at last week's meeting complained that they are bearing the burden of problems created far inland within the Delta watershed, including the deaths at the pumps.

Fort Bragg fisherman Dean Estep objected to the entire way of setting the limits on the season, saying the bureaucratic process, with its endless studies and public hearings, had killed the commercial fishing fleet.

"We never had all these meetings before," he said, drawing laughs and scattered applause from the audience. "We just had fish."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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