SAN FRANCISCO – Salmon stocks in California are so low that fishery managers have canceled not just this year’s season but next year’s as well.
Salmon once filled West Coast rivers and streams so full local Native American tribes said their ancestors could walk across salmon-filled streams without sinking into the water.
Daming, over-fishing, habitat destruction and climate change mean what’s left of those once magnificent runs are only remnants.
Today, fewer than 167,767 adult fall Chinook salmon are expected to try to return to the Sacramento River – the lowest since 2008. In the northern part of the state, just over 103,000 salmon are expected to return to the Klamath River. That’s the second-lowest forecast since current assessment methods began in 1997.
PREVIOUSLY: Feds close chinook salmon season in California due to drought effects
On Thursday the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the semi-federal body that oversees West Coast fisheries, recommended closing the state’s salmon season until the spring of 2024, the first time in 14 years such a decision has been made.
In March the state’s chinook salmon season, which would have taken place along the California coast and northward to Cape Falcon, Oregon, through May 15, was canceled to protect fall chinook in the Sacramento River, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
Chinook salmon along the coast of California and southern Oregon Coast continue to suffer lingering impacts from the region’s mega-drought.
Drought heavily impacts salmon
Salmon, including chinook, California’s predominant species, rely on plentiful waters to hatch and travel from their spawning grounds to the ocean, and then to migrate back again and drop the eggs that produce the next generation of fish.
Despite this winter’s massive rains, water in California and much of the west has been anything but plentiful for years.
How many salmon make their way up rivers to spawn depends their three-year life cycle from when eggs hatch in streams to when adults return from the ocean.
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Especially wet years mean more salmon hatching. Dry ones mean fewer three years later. Three years ago – in 2020 – California’s waters were in particularly severe drought.
“This is a decades-long trend, and the past few years of record drought only further stressed our salmon populations,” said Charlton H. Bonham, Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Low river flows and high river water temperatures have affected the salmon’s survival, especially as they emerge as eggs and need to go downstream to the ocean, said Robin Ehlke, salmon staff officer for the management council. “There are just less and less fish.”
For the past couple of years, the models used to estimate fish populations have been performing poorly, thanks to the impacts of climate change and the drought, said sport fisherman Jim Yarnall, a member of the council’s salmon advisory subpanel of fishing and tribal representatives.
“The people running these models, they’re pulling their hair out. It’s an unfortunate place where we are and it’s going to impact a lot of livelihoods,” he said.
How are salmon fishing seasons set?
Seasons are set a year in advance, with the possibility of amendment.
NOAA Fisheries gives the management council and its advisory panel guidance on the numbers they expect to see.
- State fisheries managers release abundance numbers.
- The council knows it needs to get a set amount of salmon back out of the ocean and up the rivers to their spawning grounds to keep a healthy stock of salmon, Ehlke said.
- The council and its advisory panels craft proposed seasons that meet the minimum goals
- A public hearing and comment period take place
- A final proposal is forwarded to NOAA Fisheries for review and approval.
Hope for the future
Yarnall remains optimistic about the chinook in California.
“If there’s a silver lining in all of this, California has been wet here since December,” he said. “Snowpack is high. The reservoirs are filling and salmon are an amazingly resilient species.”
“If we get out of the way and given half a chance,” he said, “you can see them bouncing right back in three years to an abundant fish stock.”