Oregon Salmon Rated as 'Avoid' on
by Scott Learn
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's popular "Seafood Watch" guide is advising shoppers and commercial fish buyers to avoid wild-caught salmon from Oregon and California, saying the population of salmon that originates in the Sacramento River and migrates into Oregon waters is too depleted to eat.
The change to the sustainable seafood guide, announced last week, tosses a stink bomb in the middle of the first commercial salmon fishing season off most of Oregon's coast in three years.
Hundreds of thousands of consumers download wallet-sized pocket guides each year. Beginning the second week of July, the guides will put a red spot beside wild-caught salmon from Oregon and California and advise consumers to "avoid" them.
The aquarium also works with fish buyers for groceries and restaurants, including Portland-based New Seasons markets. For a decade, its recommendations have helped move more large-scale fish buyers to consider the condition of runs.
Ed Cassano, director of the Seafood Watch program, said its review concluded that federal fishery managers shouldn't have authorized fishing for Sacramento fall chinook in the first place given the perilous state of the run.
"It's a hard thing to do," Cassano said of the recommendation. "But we're highly concerned that the season was opened at all."
Commercial ocean salmon fishing from Cape Falcon, near Nehalem on Oregon's north coast, south through California was closed in 2008 and 2009 because of concerns about historically low Sacramento returns. The Pacific Fishery Management Council allowed a limited season this year after projections indicated that Sacramento returns should perk up in 2010.
The aquarium's pocket guide will list wild-caught salmon from Alaska as the "best choice" and wild-caught salmon from Washington as a "good alternative." In Oregon, it doesn't draw a distinction between fish caught south of Cape Falcon and fish caught to the north, which typically come from the relatively healthy Columbia River system.
Paul Heikkila, a longtime Coos County salmon troller who sits on the management council's salmon advisory board, said the last two years of closed seasons south of Cape Falcon show that fishery managers have been conservative. And stocks from rivers north of the Sacramento, including the Klamath, Rogue and Columbia, have all been rebounding, he noted.
"To paint us with such a broad brush is ridiculous," Heikkila said.
Cassano said the aquarium will modify its advice for commercial fish buyers to clearly distinguish between the Columbia and Sacramento catches. The cards are too small for that distinction, he said, but the aquarium encourages consumers to question retailers and restaurant servers on the nuances.
Nancy Fitzpatrick, the Oregon Salmon Commission's administrator, said her group was "astounded" by the Seafood Watch recommendation. Many store buyers won't change their purchases based on the change, she predicted, but "ultimately, this will cause a lot of confusion for the public."
Earlier this year, the management council said that just 39,350 Sacramento fall chinook returned to the river last fall, about half the previous low from 2008. As recently as 2002, nearly 800,000 fall chinook showed up.
Federal and state scientists predicted a better, albeit still low, return this fall, at 245,000 fish. That allowed for sportfishing and a limited commercial season.
But in a 123-page report on salmon fisheries, Seafood Watch noted that the council's projected returns have been well above the actual returns in recent years. Last year, the management council predicted triple the actual returns.
Donald McIsaac, the management council's executive director, questioned why "somebody in Monterey" was second-guessing the council's science. The council selected the most conservative option short of shuttering ocean fishing south of Cape Falcon for a third year, he said.
"Given the (scientific advice) and the economic calamity up and down the coast, the council just felt it would be irresponsible to be even more precautionary than they were," McIsaac said.
Alan Hummel, New Seasons' director of meat and seafood, said he couldn't reach his aquarium contact Monday to discuss the change. The market generally follows Seafood Watch recommendations, he said, though it has made exceptions.
"Until I can get some hard facts, we're going to continue selling local salmon as we always have," Hummel said.
Oceana, the ocean conservation group, is a Seafood Watch partner but supported the limited season, said Ben Enticknap, Oceana's Pacific project manager. The Sacramento's wild fish face dams, hatcheries and water withdrawals for California agriculture and cities, he said.
"You can't just point to the commercial fishery and say that's the problem -- it's much more complex," Enticknap said. "It's a really tough thing to fit on a wallet card."
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