Despite a huge increase expected in the number of fall chinook salmon bound for the Rogue River this fall, continued problems with Sacramento River salmon survival means there likely will be very little sport and commercial salmon fishing this summer off the Southern Oregon coast — and maybe none.
Preliminary stock assessments estimate that 462,800 Rogue fall chinook are now in the ocean, 216,000 more than last year, according to federal Pacific Fishery Management Council reports.
Of those, an estimated 130,000 fall chinook are expected to head past tidewater and into the Rogue this summer and fall — 260 percent more than last year.
But only 229,400 Sacramento River fall chinook are estimated to be in the ocean. That's 1,300 fewer than last year's small run, whose protection shut down sport and commercial chinook fishing off Southern Oregon.
Salmon managers heading into the PFMC's March 8-14 meeting said they think the council will be able to propose at least possible sport and commercial seasons with as little impact to Sacramento stocks as possible.
"I'm pretty hopeful we'll have something," said Richard Heap of Brookings-Harbor, who is vice chairman of the PFMC's salmon advisory subpanel. "I'm going up there with the possibility that we'll fish this year, unlike last year.
"We'll have to wait and see how it plays out," Heap said.
On March 14, the PFMC is expected to float three sport and commercial season options for public comment. Heap said he "wouldn't be surprised" if one of those options calls for a repeat of last year's season that never was.
The PFMC meeting will take place in Rohnert Park, California. The PFMC will set its final season recommendations when it meets April 5-11 in Portland. The federal Department of Commerce has the final say in setting ocean-fishing seasons.
Rogue, Klamath and Sacramento salmon mill about together in the ocean, so seasons are crafted to protect the weakest of the stocks even if others are faring well.
Last year, the lowest-ever forecast for Klamath-bound 4-year-old chinook caused the lost season.
The bulk of the chinook now in the ocean entered as smolts in 2014 and 2015, both drought years. During those years, supplemental water releases from Lost Creek Lake helped keep the Rogue River higher and cooler than it would have been.
And those Rogue fish that entered the ocean seemed to have survived well, said Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
"Wherever our fish went in the ocean, they found someplace really good to go," Samarin said.
Research shows that fall chinook have been the Rogue's biggest benefactors of the placement and operation of Lost Creek and Applegate dams. Supplemented summer flows annually open Applegate River spawning grounds upstream of Murphy Dam, and the Lost Creek Lake releases help curb outbreaks of fish-killing diseases associated with warm, low summer flows.
While the ocean-fishing woes continue, the Rogue is poised for another booming in-river fishing season during late summer and fall from Gold Beach up to the Rogue Valley.
ODFW estimates that 130,000 fall chinook will fin past Huntley Park, a gravel bar just outside of tidewater where ODFW crews sample for Rogue fall chinook annually.
Last year's preseason estimate was 50,000 chinook, while the post-season estimate was about 90,000 chinook, said ODFW biologist Steve Mazur in Gold Beach.
"I hope it holds up," Mazur said. "I imagine we'll be the hot spot on the coast again."