Fishing boats would normally fan out along the California coast to catch chinook salmon in the spring, but regulators have announced that the fishing season will be closed this year.
This is only the second time in history that the ocean salmon fishery has been closed in California, and the decision reflects a major decline in fish populations after the driest three years on record in the state.
People who depend on the salmon fishery said the closure will cause 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’re going to lose boats from our commercial and recreational fleets,” Bates said. “The Californian public is going to have to get used to not having salmon on their barbecue unless they want it from afar.”
The Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a quasi-federal multistate body that decides sea fishing seasons, adopted proposals 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 due to open in most areas on April 1, will be canceled until May 15.
Fisheries officials cited the near-record number of 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 15 years. that managers use. their current valuation method.
Authorities have estimated fewer than 104,000 Fall Chinooks will likely 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.
“It’s incredibly sad,” McManus said. “There are thousands of people in California and Oregon who depend on Central Valley salmon for a living.”
Fisheries and environmental groups have criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration for water policies they say have not prioritized river flows for salmon.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen,” McManus said. “We won’t have to go through this again in the future, and we won’t if certain changes are made.”
His association, along with other fishing and environmental groups, has two pending lawsuits against the state and federal government challenging water management policies.
State officials have pointed out that declines in salmon populations typically follow dry years and said they are prioritizing efforts to rebuild fish populations.
Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said recently that the decline is part of a decades-long trend and that the past three years of record drought “have only stressed our salmon populations more.”
Bonham said the low population reflects extremely dry conditions in 2020.
Fluctuations in salmon numbers are generally tied to river flows, with wetter conditions helping the fish thrive.
Bonham said storms and high river flows this year should benefit salmon. In 2010, for example, heavy rains led to higher estimates of adult return in 2012 and 2013.
“It gives you some optimism that in three years you might see the same kind of thing,” Bonham said. “It can go around in circles.”
When salmon return to California rivers to spawn, they lay their eggs in gravel nests in the 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 out to sea. But due to the low number of adult salmon that returned 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 authorities also operate hatcheries that raise and release millions of Chinook salmon each year. And high river flows this spring should help more of these salmon thrive as they are released in the coming months.
For decades, dams have prevented salmon from reaching their traditional spawning streams, and fish are struggling more and more as climate change has intensified drought and brought warmer temperatures.
To complicate the situation, scientists have found that a thiamine deficiency harms Chinook populations, and they suspect that the salmon feed too many anchovies.
In the Sacramento River, other salmon migrations are in danger. Spring chinook is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while winter chinook is endangered.
Commercial and recreational fishers 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 permitted date range of May through October in different areas along the coast, while the Klamath area in far northern California was closed.
In a plan to help salmon, four dams on the Klamath River are to be removed, with work starting this year.
State and federal biologists have also worked with leaders of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe on an experimental project on the McCloud River, where they released thousands of juvenile salmon in the winter last year, allowing them to swim upstream of Shasta Dam for the first time in 80 years.
Commercial fishing, meanwhile, may take time to recover.
Bates said she and others anticipate the 2024 sea 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 redfish.
“Those of us who survive this shutdown will have to be creative and hardworking, which is what fishermen usually are,” Bates said. “There are a good number of us who I think will give up, and a good number of us who will survive.”
She and others said state and federal hatcheries will play a vital role in helping the fish population. Bates said she was somewhat optimistic about the long-term evolution of salmon.
“I don’t think it’s a death knell,” Bates said. “It is a very resistant species. So I think with proper water management and proper fisheries management, we will recover. I just hope there will still be boats and captains when the species recovers.