SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — California could see a return to a full-length coastal salmon fishing season this year with biologists forecasting a tripling of the fish's ocean population, state fish and wildlife officials said Tuesday.
The agency is projecting 729,000 salmon in coastal waters in 2011, up from a 2010 projection of 245,000 fish, Department of Fish and Game spokesman Harry Morse said.
If actual salmon numbers come anywhere close to the latest forecast, West Coast salmon fisherman could see their first good catch in years after cancelled seasons in 2008 and 2009 and a shortened season in 2010 led to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, according to department estimates.
"Good news for a change," said Fish and Game Deputy Director Sonke Mastrup. "Salmon numbers are projected to provide some real opportunity for sport and commercial anglers."
The department announced the preliminary figure Tuesday at a meeting in Santa Rosa. Federal regulators next week will evaluate the data and come up with a final number to make recommendations on the length of this year's season, Morse said.
The department cautions the actual number of salmon counted by the 2010 season's end was fewer than half what was predicted. Estimates are based on information about the number of salmon that returned to spawn in California rivers, the number of fish spawning in state salmon hatcheries and a sampling of the current ocean population.
The prediction for this year's ocean population is based mainly on the number of adult Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River fall run, which despite being smaller than expected saw a return to more normal levels after major drops in 2008 and 2009.
The department of fish and game calls the Sacramento River fall run the "main driver" of coastal commercial and sport salmon fishing.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is set next week to consider its recommendations for the length of this year's salmon season, with a final decision set to come later in the spring.
California fish and game officials are making preparations based on expectations that the season could start as early as mid-April off the Humboldt County coast in Northern California, Morse said.
Some fishermen worried that despite the higher number of salmon heading upriver, the fish must still traverse the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta before returning to the ocean. Environmentalists and fishermen blame pumps in the delta that channel water to many of the state's farmers for the salmon's sharp decline.
"I'm just a little bit worried that as a forecast by itself it probably overestimates the health of the fishery," said John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. "You have to be very careful you don't overharvest them. The salmon season has to be set on a conservative basis."
The state's other major adult salmon population, found on the Klamath River, is projected to top 370,000, up from a forecast 331,500 in 2010.