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Robust Salmon Fishing Season Big Business for Small Towns

by Associated Press
Times-News, June 14, 2004

BOISE -- Salmon fishing is big business for some Idaho communities.

Salmon seasons have drawn up to $90 million annually to the state, with more than half that amount gathered in rural economies, according to a study by Ben Johnson Associates.

While the amount is based on a banner 2001 season, Don Reading, of the Boise-based firm said it's indicative of what reliable salmon seasons could bring to the state.

Reading said anglers spent about $38 million specifically on salmon fishing in 2001. The money contributed $52 million as it cycled through local communities, and totaled $90 million in economic affect, he said.

More than half the money was spent in small towns like Riggins, where salmon fishing accounted for 13 percent of the town's annual sales, according to the study.

Salmon seasons account for up to half of the business at Rexanne Zimmerman's tackle shop she opened 11 years ago. She said before the Idaho Department of Fish and Game started opening salmon seasons, the period between the end of steelhead season in April and the start of trout fishing at the end of May was traditionally her slowest month.

During the 2001 salmon season, she said she grossed more from tackle sales in a day than what she made in most months.

But she's not banking on the big salmon runs.

"You don't dare rely on salmon seasons, but it's sure nice when you get them," Zimmerman said.

Nicola Johnson, assistant manager for the Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins, said a severe drought that broke in the mid-1990s improved young "smolt" salmon's migration to the ocean, and once there the young fish found a better environment.

"Returns seem to hinge on two things: The flow of the river when the fish migrate to the ocean and ocean conditions after they get there," Johnson said.

Biologist Eric Schindler said ocean environment has improved because coastal areas have moved out of the short term "el nino" cycle that created warm, nutrient-deficient water covering the coast line.

Schindler, an ocean salmon biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said when el nino conditions end, northwest winds push water off shore and draw in colder, nutrient-rich water from the ocean bottom.

As the nutrient-filled water hits sunlight, plants bloom and feed small bait fish that are a food source for salmon.

Another factor contributing to ocean health is a shift in currents along the coast between California and Alaska.

"It's so subtle we don't know we've had a shift until four or five years after the shift," Schindler said.

Scientists say the shift occurs in 10- to 30-year cycles, known as the "Pacific Decadal Oscillation," which Schindler said last happened around 1998.

That could partially explain Idaho's increased salmon returns that first began in 2000. Successful fishing seasons also depend on the amount of fish hatcheries are able to release.

The Rapid River Hatchery -- funded by Idaho Power and operated by Idaho Department of Fish and Game -- tries to produce about 3 million young salmon for annual releases. Between 1964 and 1999, it met that goal about half the time, but since 2000, the hatchery has met it each year.

Hatcheries use adult salmon to replenish egg supplies for the next generation. A hatchery needs about 3,000 adult salmon to replenish egg supplies for the next generation. The remaining fish are available for fishing.

Johnson is cautious about the trend, which a few years of drought and poor ocean conditions could change quickly.

"We could be back in the same boat as we were in the 1990s," Johnson said.

Associated Press
Robust Salmon Fishing Season Big Business for Small Towns
Times-News, June 14, 2004

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