Fishing boats normally fan out along the California coast to catch Chinook salmon in the spring, but regulators have announced the fishing season will close this year.
It’s only the second time in history that ocean salmon fishing has been shut down in California, and the decision reflects a major decline in fish stocks after the state’s driest three-year period on record.
People who depend on salmon fishing said the shutdown will bring economic hardship for many in the industry.
“This whole situation is really depressing,” said Sarah Bates, who fishes with a commercial boat and usually sells her catch through a community fishing association in San Francisco.
“I think we are going to lose some boats from our commercial and recreational fleets,” Bates said. “California people are going to have to get used to not having salmon on their barbecue unless they want it from far away.”
He Pacific Fisheries Management Councila multi-state quasi-federal body that decides on ocean fishing seasons, proposals adopted to close the fishing season at a meeting last week, and is expected to formally approve the closure at a meeting in early April.
The National Marine Fisheries Service also announced that the inshore sport fishing season, which was scheduled to open in most areas on April 1, will be canceled until May 15.
Fisheries officials have cited the near-record number of fall Chinook salmon that returned to spawn in the Sacramento River last year.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the estimated number of 3-year-old adults likely to return to the Sacramento River this year to spawn is less than 170,000, one of the lowest forecasts in the 15 years officials have been using. . your current assessment method.
Officials estimated that fewer than 104,000 Fall Chinooks are likely to return to the Klamath River, the second-lowest estimate since 1997.
The only other time salmon fishing was shut down entirely along the California coast was in 2008.
“We don’t have enough salmon this year to have a season,” said John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Assn.
“This is incredibly sad,” McManus said. “There are thousands of people in California and Oregon who depend on Central Valley salmon for their livelihood.”
Fisheries and environmental groups have criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration for water policies that they argue have not prioritized river flows for salmon.
“This didn’t have to happen,” McManus said. “We don’t have to go through this again in the future, and we won’t if some changes are made.”
His association, along with other fishing and environmental groups, has two pending court cases against the state and federal government challenging water management policies.
State officials have noted that declines in salmon stocks often follow dry years and have said they are prioritizing efforts to rebuild fish stocks.
Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, recently said the decline is part of a decades-long trend and that the past three years of record-breaking drought “only further stressed our salmon populations.”
Bonham said the low population reflects the extremely dry conditions of 2020.
Fluctuations in salmon numbers are generally related to flows in rivers, and wetter conditions help fish thrive.
Bonham said the storms and high river flows this year should benefit salmon. In 2010, for example, abundant rains led to higher estimates of returning adults in 2012 and 2013.
“That gives you some optimism that three years from now, you could see the same kinds of things,” Bonham said. “This can change.”
When salmon return to California rivers to spawn, they lay their eggs in gravel nests in stream beds. Juvenile fish migrate to the Pacific, often returning in three years to complete the cycle.
Normally, strong spring runoff is ideal for pushing young salmon downstream towards the ocean. But because of the low numbers of adult salmon returning to spawn last year, McManus said, “our best guess is that there aren’t a ton of wild baby salmon waiting to take advantage of this runoff.”
State and federal officials also run hatcheries that raise and release millions of Chinook salmon each year. And the high river flows this spring are expected to help more of those salmon thrive as they are released in the coming months.
For decades, dams have prevented salmon from reaching their traditional spawning streams, and the fish are having an increasingly difficult time as climate change has intensified drought and brought warmer temperatures.
To complicate the situation, scientists have discovered that a thiamine deficiency is hurting Chinook populations, and they suspect salmon may be feeding too much on numerous anchovies.
In the Sacramento River, other salmon streams are in danger. Spring Chinooks are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while winter Chinooks are listed as endangered.
Both commercial and recreational fishermen catch fall Chinook along the coast. Officials said commercial fishing brought in more than 211,000 fish in 2022.
Last year’s season included a range of allowable dates from May to October in different areas along the coast, while the Klamath area in far northern California was closed.
In a plan aimed at helping salmon, four dams on the Klamath River are scheduled to be removed, with work to begin this year.
State and federal biologists have also worked alongside leaders of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe on a pilot project on the McCloud River, where they released thousands of juvenile winter salmon last year, allowing them to swim upstream of Shasta Dam for first time in 80 years
Meanwhile, commercial fishing could take time to recover.
Bates said she and others anticipate the 2024 ocean fishing season will also be closed or limited. She said some in the commercial industry will likely adapt by focusing more on Dungeness crab and other fisheries, including black cod, halibut and rockfish.
“Those of us who survive this lockdown are going to have to be creative and hard-working, as fishermen generally are,” Bates said. “There are a good number of us that I think will give up, and a good number of us that will survive.”
She and others said state and federal hatcheries will play a vital role in helping the fish population. Bates said he’s somewhat optimistic about how salmon will fare in the long term.
“I don’t think it’s a death sentence,” Bates said. “This is a very resistant species. So I think with proper water management and proper fisheries management, we will bounce back. I just hope there are still boats and captains when the species recovers.”