This week’s news included warnings about potential flooding as temperatures rise and the Sierra’s mammoth snowpack begins to melt.
So it may seem a bit odd to be reading about the lingering effects of California’s drought.
But one of the most troubling consequences is coming into focus as sport salmon fishing season begins today amid renewed concerns about the long-term survival of an iconic species.
Salmon are anadromous fish, hatching in freshwater streams, migrating to the ocean and returning home to spawn in a lifecycle of about three years.
Already endangered by dams and diversions and tangled up in a political tug of war over California’s water, their numbers have been decimated by a five-year drought that left some streams dry and raised water temperatures in others so high that thousands of juvenile salmon got baked to death before they ever reached the ocean.
The numbers are bleak. Pacific Fisheries Management Council biologists estimate that about 230,000 chinook salmon are swimming in the ocean water off Northern California. That’s down from 300,000 last year and 652,000 in 2015. Experts describe the low forecast for the Klamath River as unprecedented. The trend is ominous, and the larger picture is even worse. In a good year, biologists say, there would be about 1 million chinook salmon in coastal waters.
When the fisheries council convenes next week in Sacramento, the result almost certainly will be an abbreviated salmon season, with sport fishing halted as early as April 30. Commercial fishing off the North Coast is likely to be postponed and could be canceled altogether for just the second time in history.
None of those scenarios bodes well for beleaguered coastal villages that rely on fishing for their livelihood. The lost salmon season follows on a second crabbing season truncated due to high levels of domoic acid, a condition also blamed on climactic factors.
The drought-busting winter of 2016-17 does offer the fishing industry some hope for a rebound by the end of the decade. But fisheries experts warn that climate change is likely to reduce the Sierra snowpack in the coming decades, leaving fewer streams cold enough year-round to support spawning.
In the nearer term, President Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress are eager to deliver the larger water diversions that Central Valley agricultural interests have long coveted at a high ecological cost for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and other vital salmon habitat in Northern California.
Northern California’s congressional delegation has battled to protect the region’s rivers from encroachment and must continue to do so. But it will still take a resumption of traditional winter rainfall patterns, for which there is no guarantee, to bring back the bountiful salmon and healthy crab populations that help sustain North Coast communities from Bodega Bay to Crescent City.