California Fisheries Shut as Salmon Population Crashes

March 17, 2023

Despite recent rains, long term drought is having a delayed effect on salmon populations across the west coast, an event reminiscent of recent crash in crab populations off Alaska.

Los Angeles Times:

Fishing boats would normally fan out along the California coast to catch Chinook salmon in the spring, but regulators have announced the fishing season will be shut down this year.

It’s 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 state’s driest three-year period on record.

People who depend on salmon fishing said the closure will bring economic hardships 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 some boats from both our commercial and recreational fleets,” Bates said. “The public of California is going to have to get used to not having salmon on their barbecue, unless they want it from very far away.”

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, a multistate, quasi-federal body that decides on ocean 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 coastal sport fishing season, which had been scheduled to open in most areas on April 1, will be canceled through May 15.

Fisheries officials have cited the nearly record-low numbers of fall-run 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 that are 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 that officials have been using their current assessment method.

The Golden State Salmon Association has blamed water policies that it says benefit California’s agriculture industry.

“Dam operation decisions favoring agriculture over salmon survival have resulted in very poor natural salmon reproduction in recent years,” the association said in a press release, adding that “lethal hot water left over after dam releases for agriculture” has killed incubating salmon eggs.

Last month, environmental and fishing advocates condemned a request by the Newsom administration to temporarily waive environmental water-quality rules in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in an effort to store more water in reservoirs. They argued that the request, which was approved by the State Water Resources Control Board, was harmful for Chinook salmon.

State officials defended the approach, saying other existing protections were adequate. They later ended the waiver of water-quality rules, saying the plentiful storm runoff made it no longer necessary.

State officials have pointed out that declines in salmon populations typically follow dry years, and have 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 the last three years of record drought “only further stressed our salmon populations.”

Bonham said the low population reflects the extremely dry conditions of 2020.

Fluctuations in salmon numbers are typically tied to flows in rivers, with wetter conditions helping the fish flourish.

Bonham said the storms and high river flows this year should benefit the salmon. In 2010, for example, ample rainfall led to higher estimates of returning adults in 2012 and 2013.

“That gives you some optimism that in three years from now, you could see the same kind of thing,” Bonham said. “This can turn around.”

When salmon return to California rivers to spawn, they lay their eggs in gravel nests in streambeds. The juvenile fish migrate to the Pacific, often returning in three years to complete the cycle.

Normally, heavy spring runoff is ideal for pushing young salmon downriver to the ocean. But because of the low numbers of adult salmon that came back to spawn last year, McManus said, “our best guess is that there are not a ton of wild baby salmon waiting to take advantage of this runoff.”

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