Poor outlook for king salmon could shut down California’s sport and commercial seasons

Low estimate of adult salmon in the ocean, available for harvest, portends limited, if any, commercial or recreational fishing this year.|

A dismal outlook for king salmon in the Pacific Ocean could shut down sport and commercial fishing this year for the first time since the devastating, landmark season closures of 2008 and 2009.

The bleak picture is largely a consequence of extended drought and poor spawning conditions in freshwater rivers over the past three years, as well as the decreasing hospitality of inland water systems over the past century.

This year’s official “forecast abundance” estimates that just 169,767 adult chinook salmon are waiting off shore to be caught — a substantial decrease from the 396,458 predicted last year and forecasts above 800,000 a decade ago.

If any harvest is permitted this year at all, once season dates are established next month, it will necessarily be extremely limited, given the salmon stock’s vulnerability and regulatory mandates intended to ensure it remains a viable species.

The stakes are high for commercial fishing crews, recreational charter boats, equipment suppliers, seafood processors and others who depend on the millions of dollars brought into the region by the iconic, silvery fish once captured in abundance off the north and central California coasts and farther north.

Chinook salmon is second only to Dungeness crab, typically the North Coast’s real commercial king, in commercial fishing landings, with a combined value of almost $17 million in Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg last year.

But hurdles that include everything from climate change and drought to issues like whale entanglement and shifting markets have made it increasingly difficult to make a living in commercial fishing.

A nearly 2-month delay in the Dungeness crab season this year meant commercial crabbers missed the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays and then had a glut of fresh crab available when the market was weak, said veteran fisherman Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Marketing Association, which represents the local commercial fleet.

Though Ogg participates in a variety of fisheries, many locals only do salmon, crab or both.

“For the guys that only have salmon as a potential income, it’s going to be devastating,” he said, “and for the guys who have salmon and crab, and who have had a minimal crab season, it’s going to be devastating.”

Salmon also draws thousands of sport anglers to Bodega Bay and other California ports for a chance to hook the succulent pink fish that mark barbecue season, Wine Country style.

“It’s a tough time for everybody,” Ogg said, “because the recreational impact is huge. It’s massive. It’s millions and millions of dollars by the fishermen being able to buy lures, fuel, lines. It’s massive. I understand why they have a difficult time.

“At the same time, for the commercial guys, it’s our living,” he said. “It’s what we do.”

John McManus is president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which says the salmon industry is a $1.4 billion gold mine for California in terms of total economic activity, and generates about 23,000 jobs in a normal season.

He increasingly blames federal and state water policy for pumping water to suit the demands of agriculture at the expense of fish, including a recent decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom to waive legal requirements for freshwater flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta so that more of the recent rainfall can be captured and stored behind dams.

State Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said the issues contributing to salmon declines are extremely complicated — beyond any particular drought or what any individual advocacy group might admit — including the fact that most of the best, cold-water spawning grounds are above longtime dams in places like the McCloud River and Battle Creek in Northern California. He said his agency and others are addressing issues in a number of ways, including advocacy for removal of Klamath River dams, which would improve access to ocean fish; $20 million in investments in modernization of state hatcheries; and trucking of adult spawning beyond dams to cooler spawning water and the return of young fish downstream at a later time.

“I’m not jazzed about an engineered solution to an engineered problem … but the reality is almost 90% of the best spawning habitat is way up in the headwaters, and the fish can’t get there,” Bonham said. “So either we decide not to do something about that, or we decide to do something, which I think we must, while acknowledging water management is also a big issue here.”

Warnings about a poor season ahead came this week during formal informational meetings that are the start of an annual, weekslong process to determine when and where sport and commercial fishermen will be allowed to drop their lines off the Western United States each year.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which manages commercial, private and tribal fishing in federal waters of California, Oregon and Washington, will meet the first week in April to consider three season options for recreational and commercial fishing geographic zones. A series of meetings and discussions taking place between now and then will narrow down the choices.

“Those close to the process have probably been plumbing people for information and already knew we had poor river returns,” council Chairman Marc Gorelnik said in an interview. “We had not quantified that yet, but I don’t think this is going to be a big surprise to anyone that’s paying attention.”

At the center of the debate are surveys, inspections and data modeling to determine what was caught last year, how many adult fish returned up river to spawn, or “escaped,” and what harvest targets would maintain the species at a sustainable level.

Adult spawning escapement for Sacramento River fall run chinook, which is the largest contributor to ocean salmon, was estimated at just 61,850 in 2022, the third-lowest level on record, according to Audrey Dean, a senior environmental specialist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Nearly half, 29,138, were calculated to be hatchery fish.

That’s well below the target level of 122,000 to 180,000 established to rebuild a stock declared officially “overfished” in 2018 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Though declared “rebuilt” in 2021 because of restricted fishing and improved returns, the stock now face falling again into the overfished category. The Klamath River fall run chinook also was declared overfished in 2018 and remains in that status.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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