California Chinook salmon populations have fallen to their lowest levels in years, according to new estimates from state and federal scientists — a decline that could lead to a halt in the commercial and recreational fishing season along the coast.
“The salmon are struggling,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “And we are very concerned about their future, knowing that we are fully committed to rebuilding and rescuing them.”
Bonham said the decline is part of a decades-long trend, and that the past three years of record drought have “only put further pressure on our salmon populations.”
The department said scientists estimate the number of 3-year-old Fall-run Chinook likely to return to the Sacramento River to spawn this year would be less than 170,000, one of the lowest forecasts in 15 years. They also estimate that fewer than 104,000 are likely to return to the Klamath River, the second lowest estimate since 1997.
In its announcement on Wednesday, the department said the returning Chinook fell “well short of conservation goals” in the Sacramento River last fall and may now be nearing the point of being classified as overfished.
“In response, federal and state agencies are expected to take a conservative approach in approving 2023 salmon seasons to implement additional protective measures for these stocks, and very limited or no fishing in 2023 appears possible,” the department said.
The new population estimates seem to reflect the variety of threats weighing down on Chinook salmon. While the construction of countless dams on ancestral rivers decades ago dealt a serious blow to the survival of the species, global warming and droughts have also taken their toll – even as state and federal hatcheries produce millions each year breeding and releasing salmon.
Salmon, which begin their life cycle in stream beds, migrate to the ocean as juveniles, then return to their birthplace to spawn before dying. In recent years, scientists have identified yet another threat to the species’ survival: A deficiency of thiamine is harming Chinook populations, and researchers suspect salmon may be overfeeding on numerous Pacific anchovies.
In light of the new population estimates, the Pacific Fisheries Management Board will consider alternatives to the ocean fishing season at meetings next week.
Options likely include limited fishing, a complete shutdown or something in between, Bonham said. A decision is expected at meetings in early April.
California has banned inshore salmon fishing only once before. That closure took place in 2008.
Last year’s commercial season spanned a range of allowed dates from May to October in various zones along the coast, while the Klamath zone in far northern California was closed.
Recreational fishermen catch Chinook in the fall on the Sacramento and other rivers, and members of indigenous tribes traditionally fish for salmon.
Decisions on inland recreational fishing will be made in May by the California Fish and Game Commission.
Data from previous years shows that three years of dry conditions typically yield low estimates of returning salmon, Bonham said. The low numbers this year reflect the extremely dry conditions of 2020, he said.
Salmon numbers are sporadic and tied to streams in rivers, with wetter conditions helping the fish to thrive.
Bonham said the extremely wet winter this year should benefit salmon. For example, in 2010, abundant rainfall led to higher estimates of returning adults in 2012 and 2013.
“That gives you some optimism that you could see the same thing three years from now,” Bonham said. “This could turn.”
However, salmon fisheries advocates said the bleak outlook for this year shows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration should do more to prioritize river flows for fish.
The prediction of too few fish to support a fishery “will hurt not only those who make their living from salmon, but also the many Californians whose dinner tables would normally be replenished with salmon,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Assn. .
McManus and other association leaders criticized Newsom’s water policy, noting that while salmon numbers have declined, water has been flowing to almond orchards that have expanded significantly in recent years.
“We still have good water resources in California. They just need to be managed properly, in a slightly fairer and more balanced way, so that we don’t crush the native salmon runs the state has been blessed with. And this year we can see that they’ve been crushed,” McManus said.
He said the association’s members support responsible stewardship.
“Fishermen and women across the state want this stock rebuilt,” McManus said. “We know it’s possible. It just takes a little honesty, compromise and balance.”
Last month, environmental and fisheries advocates denounced a request by the Newsom administration to temporarily waive environmental regulations on water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in an effort to store more water in reservoirs. They argued that the requestapproved by the Executive Director of the State Water Resources Control Board will harm Chinook salmon, longfin smelt and endangered delta smelt.
State officials have defended the approach, saying other existing protections are sufficient.
Department of Fish and Wildlife officials said they are working on plans to rebuild Chinook populations in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers.
But environmentalists argue the state’s efforts are insufficient, and this year’s low numbers reflect a trend of continued declines.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it should certainly be a big warning light that our native salmon areas are in big trouble.”