The meager returns from this year's salmon season should have more than commercial and recreational fishermen concerned.
It's a haunting reminder for all of us that there's plenty we still don't understand about endangered salmon and, more specifically, what needs to be done to ensure their recovery.
Authorities had hoped that shutting down the fishing season for the past two years would give fish a chance to rebound after alarming declines in recent years. In 2002, an estimated 800,000 natural and hatchery-raised chinook made their way back up the Sacramento River. But by 2008, the number had fallen to 66,000, triggering the first ban on salmon fishing on the coast of California. Last year, the actual run had dwindled to 39,800, prompting another shutdown of the fishing season.
This year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing seasons, lifted the sportfishing ban and opened commercial fishing for just eight days after federal biologists predicted a salmon run this year of 245,483.
But based on reports of boats coming back to Bodega Bay, those projections may be off once again. As Staff Writer Jeremy Hay reported after the second of two four-day fishing periods, the catch last weekend was sparse. "It's the slowest I think anybody's ever seen — it's the slowest I've ever seen," said 32-year fishing veteran Charlie Beck of Bodega Bay.
These disappointing reports are in sharp contrast to the news of healthy salmon runs in the Northwest. NOAA Fisheries reported last weekend that the chinook run on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington was 140 percent above the 10-year average. The steelhead count at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia was 244 percent above average, and sockeye was at record levels. "And biologists say returns of wild and hatchery salmon and steelhead appear promising for next year and beyond," the Seattle Times reported Sunday.
This is all encouraging news given that Columbia salmon were once on the verge of extinction. NOAA officials say credit for the rebound goes to favorable ocean conditions, upgraded habitat conditions and improved hatchery practices. Improved fish passage at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers has helped considerably.
So what's happening with the fishery on the California coast? Fingers point in many directions. Some blame poor logging practices. Commercial fishermen have long blamed it on freshwater diversions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year blamed the problem on unfavorable ocean conditions. NOAA officials said in a report that Sacramento salmon returning to spawn in recent years were struggling against warmer ocean temperatures and less upwelling of food sources from ocean depths.
Whatever the explanation, it's evident that salmon are going to need much more than no-fishing signs to recover. Meanwhile, opening commercial salmon fishing for two four-day periods was of little benefit to anyone.