In Charleston, on the Oregon coast, a way of life seems endangered.

In Charleston, on the Oregon coast, salmon trolling is a way of life. But now, with the chinook season collapsed, it's A life on rocky shoals.

Matt Hakki sits quietly at the plywood table overlooking Charleston's fishing port while the older men talk about predators, regulators, Chilean fish farms, seas that can turn a 50-foot salmon troller into a pinball.

Last year, banking on a favorable fishing forecast, he took out a loan and paid $80,000 for a boat built 68 years ago, ready after a decade as a deckhand to chase a legendary fish that can command $100 a head.

But for the most part, the fish didn't show up. This year, he found out there will be no salmon fishing at all.

"I'm scared," he says, and the older men fall silent. "I kind of took the leap of faith to do something to better myself and my family. Now I have to look at my wife and my two young boys.

"I ask myself everyday, did I make the right decision?"

Last week, following a stunning drop in the numbers of fall chinook projected to return from the ocean to the Sacramento River, the Pacific Fishery Management Council opted for the largest salmon fishing closure ever off the Oregon and California coasts.

The closure won't shut down the seashore. Truth is, salmon's commercial heyday on the Pacific is past. They're among the top fish for recreational fishermen, but along the Oregon coast, salmon account for well under 10 percent of the total near-shore commercial fishery.

Salmon charters and sportfishermen will still get to chase a small amount of hatchery coho on holidays, and shift to tuna, halibut and spiny and colorful rockfish where conditions allow. Charleston's salmon trollers will set pots for Dungeness crab, chase black cod and debate whether to burn expensive fuel searching for albacore that roam in deeper waters.

But charter boat owners and ports that rely most on salmon, including Charleston and nearby Winchester Bay, will be hit hard.

And salmon trollers -- the ones who fish only with hook and line -- will lose their bread and butter. It is the latest in a series of blows that has dropped their ranks in the state from nearly 4,000 permitted trollers in 1980 to fewer than 500 today.

Young men like Hakki, who turned 33 in August, aren't coming into the business, the older men at the table say.

They worry, too. They've watched the catch boom and bust. They've dropped in and out of trolling. They fish in wooden boats, expensive to keep up, many built before their fathers were born. They wonder whether salmon will go the way of the buffalo.

Paul Merz sold his first commercial salmon in 1970. He's stepped in and out of fishing five times since, taking turns on tugboats, barges and habitat restoration projects.

In his front yard, steps from Charleston's docks, a 34-foot troller deteriorates on blocks, a casualty of the coho declines in the mid-1990s. These days, about three-fifths of the salmon he catches began life in the Sacramento River, hundreds of miles south.

Parents in Oregon fishing families generally didn't want their children to plan on fishing careers, a 1998 study found. Mothers felt it was too dangerous, the study said. Fathers felt it had no future.

"If you look at the requirements for an Endangered Species Act listing," Merz says, "we qualify."

The salmon trollers are classic mom-and-pop operations, running after fish on their own or maybe with one crew member.

By regulation, they fish with four barbless hooks to a line, six lines tops. They use sonar and satellite navigation. But they handle the fish one at a time, bleeding them, gutting them and packing their bellies with ice.

"The care given to these fish by the trollers is really unique," says Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which advocates for tribal fisheries. "It's as close to a hands-on relationship with the fish as you can get."

The trollers and ocean environmentalists aren't always pals. Many fishermen favor aggressive control of salmon predators, from cormorants to sea lions. They like hatcheries, and view the small marine reserves that conservationists favor as a big threat.

But they see eye to eye with conservationists on the damage done by dams, by rampant land clearing around streams, by factory fishing's by-catch of salmon, by increasing water withdrawals from the Sacramento for farms and, as Merz puts it, "to fill swimming pools and water golf courses in Los Angeles."

Salmon trolling "is one of the most selective and sustainable methods of the commercial fisheries," says Ben Enticknap, Pacific project manager for the conservation group Oceana.

"The travesty is the U.S. government is balancing the salmon crisis on the backs of these commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen, when the real problem is the dams and poor water management."

Factory fish farming in South America and elsewhere battered the trollers in the 1990s. Raising fish in ocean pens was cheap and easy. It was tough to compete.

Increasingly, they're fighting back by catering to the growing desire for wild and sustainably caught local salmon. Charleston's trollers may favor jeans and flannel, but they can talk about omega-3's and salmon's ability to reduce plaque buildup in arteries like a Mayo Clinic researcher.

That niche marketing strategy, the microbrewery model, has driven up prices for the past five years, says Gil Sylvia, an Oregon State University professor of agriculture and resource economics.

"Once farm salmon were part of that mix in the center of the white tablecloth, the price started going down," he says. "Now that's all changed."

What hasn't changed is the basic challenges fishermen face. They're sole proprietors. They often don't have health insurance. The job has no built-in nest egg.

The legend of the salmon fisherman hauling in tens of thousands of dollars in days is true, says Flaxen Conway, an OSU sociology professor who studies fishing communities. In a good year, a fisherman's gross can hit six figures. Also true are the less-glamorous stories of fishermen slowly going broke.

"They are very creative and resilient people," she says. "But they have regular bills and very irregular income."

Emergency disaster relief could be coming, as it did in 1994 with coho and 2006 with Klamath River chinook. On Friday, several high public officials, among them the governors of Oregon and California, pledged state money and made pleas for federal aid.

But it's unlikely to make fishermen whole. Charter operators, restaurant owners and other small businesses reliant on salmon could be left in the cold.

The fishery management council rejected a genetic research project that would have paid commercial fishermen to catch salmon and take tissue samples and release them, for fear of too many fish dying in the process.

And the fishermen, like loggers independent and suspicious to the bone of government bureaucracies and paperwork, aren't great at taking advantage of the benefits, Conway says.

Charleston's trollers have a bigger hope than emergency aid. Maybe, they say, the latest salmon crisis will serve as a shock to the system, prompting everyone from senators to salmon-loving foodies to investigate why West Coast salmon management isn't working.

They're asking Congress to pay for studies of the flaws. And as they have on the Klamath, they hope to build solution-seeking alliances with Central Valley farmers in California and fishermen on the Sacramento.

Meantime, Hakki, the young fisherman, will try to make ends meet, hoping that, as it has in the past, boom will follow bust.

He's been salmon fishing since he was 10, following his stepdad, his grandfather and three great-uncles into the business.

Aboard his fishing vessel, the Washington, Hakki says he's grateful that Charleston's older fishermen have taken him under their wings, showing him how to handle the gear, pursue among the trickiest of fish and pick the best fishing spots.

Charleston's salmon trollers have dwindled, standing at about 80 now, and few of the fishermen can support a family on salmon alone. But Coos Bay and surrounding ports, including Charleston, still landed roughly half the state's commercial catch last year, generating about $1.8 million in personal income.

Four years ago, it was $6.4 million. In the late 1980s, adjusted for inflation, it averaged $15.2 million.

Salmon fishing is hard, Hakki says, and to be a top fisherman in a port would be a great honor.

He plans to stick with it.

"If you're going into business," he says, "you've got to be committed to the good and the bad."