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West Coast eyes ban on salmon fishing

SACRAMENTO -- Federal regulators are considering an unprecedented ocean fishing ban on Chinook salmon for 700 miles along the coast of California and Oregon, threatening to spread distress from beleaguered commercial fleets to family dinner tables.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet 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 Klamath -- at one time among the nation's most productive salmon-producing rivers -- would cause the highly prized Chinook runs to plummet.

Commercial fishermen placed blame Friday on the Bush administration for managing the river in a way that they contend favors farmers, dam operators, and timber companies.

''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 US Interior Department deputy assistant secretary, called the potential curtailment ''devastating news" but defended the Bush administration's stewardship of the Klamath.

''There [has] been an awful lot of mud thrown at us" over the Klamath River, Peltier said, suggesting that a turnaround would not be produced by ''that sort of finger-pointing."

During an average year, salmon fishing in California and Oregon is a $150 million industry. The commercial mainstay is the Chinook that return each fall from the sea to spawn and are sold in supermarkets as king salmon.

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. Part of the problem is less springtime water because of upstream irrigation diversions for farmers, biologists say. But the biggest factor is hydropower dams on the Klamath that have quieted the natural water turbulence, fostering algae and parasites.

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