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The salmon fishing season for California and Oregon has been officially called off for a second straight year. This week, fishery managers cancelled all commercial and sport fishing. Even a scientist's struggle to figure out why exactly the Chinook salmon population has collapsed. From member station KQED in San Francisco, David Gorn reports.

DAVID GORN: The Pacific Fisheries Management Council met this week with one big item on its plate: what to do about the Chinook salmon population. The decision to shut down this year's season was a relatively easy one, says Frank Lockhart, head of sustainable fisheries for the agency, given the steep decline of salmon numbers over the past two years.

Mr. FRANK LOCKHART (Pacific Fisheries Management Council): Last year's was a record low that was well below the conservation goals for that stock. This year, it is just barely above the minimums returns required.

GORN: Nearby at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, the tourists are all lined up, ready to pay 20 bucks for a crab cocktail and a little attitude.

Just around the back of the tourist wharf is the real wharf, where fisherman Zeke Grader(ph) is looking out over the fleet of fishing boats, and it's quiet back here.

Mr. ZEKE GRADER (Fisherman): That's the sad thing, is that we have so many of them in port right now with just nothing to do.

GORN: Normally these boats would be gearing up for the start of the salmon season. But this year, once again, there is no salmon season.

Mr. GRADER: Yeah, it certainly was no surprise. We had inklings even last year that the situation was not looking good for this year. The big issue now is trying to make sure that everybody stays alive for this year.

GORN: About a thousand fishermen are affected and they've set aside some emergency funds they hope will carry them through this year. But here's the thing: no one knows if next year will be any better, because no one knows precisely why we've seen such a dramatic crash in salmon numbers - though fisherman Grader has one idea.

Mr. GRADER: Well, I think the big issue is - has been water. And we're right now on a course to extinction if we don't do something quick about the water.

GORN: Like this water, maybe a hundred miles upstream from the bay at a place called Cuda(ph) Creek.

Professor PETER MOYLE (University of California Davis): We're looking at the Monticello Dam, which is one of the big rim dams of the Central Valley.

GORN: That's UC Davis Professor Peter Moyle. Dams are often cited as one of the reasons why these salmon are failing, he says. Others include habitat loss, urban runoff, agricultural pesticides, and ironically, says Moyle, the salmon hatcheries themselves.

Prof. MOYLE: Because they're a uniform hatchery fish, they're all going out to sea about the same time. They're all going out to sea at a fairly small size. And if the conditions happen to be poor in the ocean at that time, they can all die.

GORN: Chinook is a favorite for restaurants because of its large size and light taste. Hopefully it'll be back on the market once again in 2010.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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