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Has state’s salmon fishery hit bottom?

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A third straight year of low king salmon runs is expected to deliver another blow to one of the North Coast’s most iconic and lucrative fisheries, wildlife managers indicated Thursday, as both regulators and fishermen faced the prospect of a federally -mandated plan to reverse the trend and rebuild key stocks.

The grim news comes amid a dramatic, years-long decline in the state’s commercial salmon landings, which are down 97 percent last year from their most recent peak, in 2013, when they hit 12.7 million pounds.

The full picture for commercial and sport seasons won’t be clear for several more weeks, but spawning projections show Sacramento River salmon — historically the largest source for the state’s ocean and freshwater harvests — have fallen so low that they’re now considered by regulators to be “overfished.”

Wildlife officials acknowledged that term minimizes the many factors that have led to this point, including shifting conditions in the ocean and years of low river flows during the drought, all of which have pummeled stocks.

The outlook is dire enough to mandate development of new regulations expected to further limit where and when anglers can drop their lines and what their size and catch limits will be.

“We do anticipate that this will restrict harvest opportunities,” Jeromy Jording, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced to a standing-room-only crowd at Thursday’s annual kick-off to salmon season planning.

The annual assessment is based on a detailed statistical review of the previous year’s catch, including estimated contributions from fish hatcheries, spawning numbers, age-range estimates and other data.

Estimates on the number of returning fish now offshore will be a key factor in setting regulations.

In the scant bit of good news Thursday, the projected Klamath River stocks — which usually trail those in the Sacramento — are atypically larger, though Klamath runs have also now missed return targets for the third consecutive year, said Wade Sinnen, a state Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist.

A positive sign, Sinnen said, is that the large number of 2-year-old fish that returned to spawn last year in the Klamath and other watersheds suggests a large number of spawning-age 3-year-olds are in the ocean and can help bolster stocks.

This year’s projection for Sacramento River returns, critical to those fishing off the San Francisco Bay and Sonoma Coast, is 229,432, nearly identical to last year’s forecast of 230,700.

But last year’s modeling, like the year before, was overly optimistic, according to Michael O’Farrell, with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The amount of catch was under-estimated, as well, and, despite a severely curtailed season, too few fish were left to meet spawning targets.

With commercial landings in steady decline since 2013, well under half of the state’s 1,084 commercial permitted fishing vessels — 398 boats — even took part in the 2017 salmon harvest, said Chenchen Shen, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

About 80 of those boats accounted for half the landings.

While the price to fishermen reached an all time high last year of $9.90 a pound at the dock, the net value of the harvest — what the fishermen earn when they sell their catch — was down to $4.9 million, from $23.6 million in 2013, state records show.

Under federal fishery regulations, a comprehensive rebuilding plan must now be developed over the next year, Jording and others said.

In the meantime, members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet next week in Rohnert Park to begin drilling down on the numbers and craft several alternative season guidelines for public comment.

Marc Gorelnik, a recreational fishermen and representative of the council, said Thursday that stakeholders were still processing the latest outlook.

“I do think that the 2018 season, there’s a risk of it being more disappointing than people thought it would be,” he said.