The improving fortunes of Pacific salmon may help Pacific County's struggling economy reel in some big bucks this summer.
Last week, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council gave both sport and commercial fishermen in Washington and Oregon their longest season in memory — one that will stretch salmon fishing off the mouth of the Columbia from June into September.
"Any time you can extend the season like that, it brings more money into the community. It not only helps the port, it helps all the businesses up and down the entire peninsula. The entire south end of the county gets a financial boost with the season," said Jim Neva, manager of the Port of Ilwaco.
Butch Smith, owner of Ilwaco-based Coho Charters, said "sports fishing brings in millions of dollars to the (Long Beach) Peninsula — to restaurants, baits shops, moorage, charters and everything else."
With rising gas prices, the promise of a strong salmon season might make the coast a popular family vacation destination, he said.
"The good news for our area is that instead of going to California or Montana for a family vacation, we're less than a tankful of gas away. It makes for a reasonable mini-vacation" for people in the I-5 corridor, Smith said.
Fishermen off the California and Southern Oregon coasts in particular will benefit from strong salmon returns in the Sacramento and Klamath rivers, where returns were four times greater than in 2011. But Northern Oregon and Washington fishermen also should see better-than-average chinook salmon returns. While coho quotas will be similar to those of 2011, commercial quotas for chinook will be about 50 percent higher than in 2011.
Smith said Monday that he expects it to be a "great season, with lots of fish around."
With more fish in the water, a Chinook-only season, from June 9 - 22, and a post-Labor Day closing date for the general season, the outlook for both commercial and sport fishermen "is very good," Smith said.
Neva said the strong outlook for fishing will mean high occupancy rates for the port's marina, which he expects to be filled to capacity often during the season.
The impact of a strong fishing season will also provide a much-needed boost to tourism and business in Pacific County, where unemployment was 12.4 percent in February.
Milt Gudgel, who operates Pacific Charters, said that an added benefit of the promising fishing season is that it could generate interest in other types of fish.
"Hopefully this is going to bring more excitement to the other fisheries that we have available," said Gudgel, who said the peninsula is also a great place to catch halibut, bottom feeders, and tuna.
Mike Castanelli, mayor of Ilwaco, said the longer fishing season should mean better business for the Peninsula — if out-of-town fishermen aren't deterred by high gas prices.
"Who knows? Everybody keeps talking about five-dollar-a-gallon gas," Castanelli said.
If the lure of a great salmon catch proves strong enough to draw people to the area, Castanelli said everyone in the community would benefit from the increase in sales tax revenue generated by spending at hotels, restaurants, and local stores.
"We've always said that the best thing that could happen to would be to have a season that ran from Memorial day to Labor Day, plus," Castanelli said.