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West Coast Fisheries Hit Hard by Poor Ocean Conditions

Report shows a stark fall-off in the big seafood money-makers in the Pacific Northwest.

October 26, 2016

United States commercial fisheries are doing fine overall, but fishermen on the West Coast are hurting.  A 2015 annual report out Wednesday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a stark fall-off in the big seafood money-makers in the Pacific Northwest.  

Nationally, 2015 was an above average year in terms of catch rate, commercial value and national seafood consumption.  

“On dinner plates, the average American added nearly an extra pound of seafood,” said Richard Merrick, Chief Scientists of NOAA Fisheries during a call with reporters.  

But this rise in consumption didn’t really help the Oregon and Washington fishing industry because the crab and fish weren’t there to catch.  NOAA Fisheries scientists are attributing the low West Coast returns to abnormal conditions in the Pacific that are linked to climate change.  

“Ocean conditions have been really interesting over the last two years,” says Toby Garfield, NOAA Fisheries Southwest director of environmental research.  

Garfield points to the presence of a “marine heatwave” – a mass of warm water off the coast of Oregon and Washington commonly referred to as “the blob.”  These conditions contributed to population crashes in zooplankton (common fish food) and forage fish, like sardines.  It also caused toxic algae blooms that forced closures during shellfish and crab seasons because of concerns over human health.  

Related: Scientists Are Closer To Understanding What Makes Ocean's Toxic Algae Bloom

The Dungeness crab fishery dropped from a $210 million fishery in 2014 to $110 million last year.  The Pacific whiting (hake) catch, which relies primarily on zooplankton and forage fish, lost more than half its value last year as well.   

The amount of salmon caught in 2015 actually increased from the previous year.  But because of declines in high-value species like chinook and coho, the overall value of the fishery declined by 25 percent.    

This downward trend stands to continue because the lack of salmon food in the ocean.  

“Those salmon who will start returning this year and next year – we’re not sure – but we expect that the abundance will be fairly low because when they entered into the ocean, their forage availability was poor,” Garfield says.   

Overall Washington’s fishery has lost more than 50 percent of its value since a record year in 2013.  Over that same time in Oregon, the industry has lost about 65 percent of its value.   

One ray of hope for the Pacific Northwest is that toxic algae blooms aren’t expected to be quite as intense in the coming year. That means there could be an uptick in the 2017 catch for the crab and shellfish fisheries.     


Salmon fishing off the mouth of the Columbia River is closed for the season, effective Sunday.

Allen Thomas

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