SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Federal regulators are considering an unprecedented ocean fishing ban on Chinook salmon along 700 miles of California and Oregon coast, threatening to spread distress from beleaguered commercial fleets to family dinner tables.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this week in Seattle to recommend how the federal government should tackle a problem caused by plummeting commercial salmon stocks on the Klamath River.
Biologists have warned for years that a combination of warm and low-flowing waters in the once mighty Klamath -- at one time among the nation's most productive salmon-producing rivers -- would cause the Chinook runs to plummet.
Commercial fishermen blamed the Bush administration on Friday for managing the river in a way they say favors farmers, dam operators and timber companies at the expense of fish.
"The federal government has done absolutely nothing to help, and fishermen are angry," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Jason Peltier, a U.S. Interior Department deputy assistant secretary, called the potential fishing curtailment "devastating news" but defended the Bush administration.
"There (has) been an awful lot of mud thrown at us (over the Klamath River)," Peltier said, suggesting that a turnaround will not be produced by "that sort of finger-pointing," and that U.S. officials remain hopeful the river's ills can be healed.
During an average year, salmon fishing in California and Oregon is a $150-million industry. The commercial mainstay is the silver-sided Chinook that return each fall from the sea to spawn and are sold as king salmon.
Experts say a commercial ban, one of three options that the Pacific Fishery Management Council will weigh, could put hard-hit coastal fishing fleets financially underwater and prompt consumer price jumps and scrawny inventories.
The targeted area stretches from northern Oregon to California's historic Point Sur lighthouse, just south of Carmel.
Fishermen, who normally fish for salmon six months each year beginning in the spring, say they expect to at least see their season shortened to a few weeks because of the latest troubles.
The river emerges from the snowmelt of the Cascade Range in Oregon and runs south into California before emptying in the sea north of Eureka. For several years it has been the trouble spot for salmon on the Pacific Coast.
While the Sacramento River last year rebounded to produce one of its biggest salmon returns in decades, the Klamath has endured an epic drought and fiery water war between farmers and environmentalists in 2001, and a massive die-off of returning adult Chinook in fall 2002, when by some counts more than 70,000 fish rotted on the banks.
But an ecological tragedy that didn't hit the headlines has caused the current rash of problems, biologists say. During spring 2002 and again the next year, more than 80 percent of the juvenile fish returning to sea from the Klamath succumbed to a parasite scientists blame on a combination of low river flows, pollution and warmer water.
Part of the problem is less springtime water because of upstream irrigation diversions for farmers, biologists say.
But the biggest factor is a series of about half a dozen dams on the Klamath that have so quieted the natural turbulence of springtime flows that river-bottom gravels aren't being churned up, allowing the growth of algae where the worms can thrive.
In addition, runoff from farming, ranching and logging have combined with warmer water to fuel the algae proliferation -- and thus produce more worms and parasites. Small fish pick up the parasites on their way out to sea.
The fisheries council is expected next week to select three alternatives, ranging from a restricted season to an outright ban, then hold hearings later this month, and in April make a final recommendation to the National Marine Fisheries Service. A decision to ban fishing would have to be approved by U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez.