Water & Drought

Devastated salmon population likely to result in fishing restrictions

Northern California’s commercial anglers are bracing for restrictions on the upcoming salmon-fishing season after federal regulators projected there are half as many Central Valley Chinook salmon in the ocean compared to this time last year.

Last week, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council released its annual population estimates for Chinook off the Pacific Coast. The council estimates about 300,000 adult fall-run salmon from the Sacramento River system are swimming off the coast this year. For the past several years, the forecasts have predicted more than 600,000 salmon.

Fishing trade groups say they’re expecting potentially severe curtailments to the upcoming fishing seasons for both recreational and commercial anglers. The estimates will be used by regulators in the next few weeks to set catch limits for both seasons, which tend to run from spring to fall.

Officials blame the poor numbers on unfavorable ocean and river conditions following years of drought.

The disappointing population estimates follow a challenging year for California’s commercial fishermen. Last year’s salmon-fishing season was restricted in some areas to protect endangered winter-run Chinook whose numbers have plummeted in California’s record drought.

Professional anglers had hoped a robust Dungeness crab season would help offset the losses. But California officials announced in November they were suspending the crab season because of a toxic algae bloom off the coast. The commercial Dungeness season remains closed statewide.

“It’s a 1-2-3 punch,” said Tim Sloane, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “We had a pretty poor 2015 season. We’ve had zero income from crabbing, and now we’re looking at 2016 that’s projected to be – just by sheer numbers in the ocean – half what 2015 was.”

Jennifer Simon, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the salmon numbers are worse farther north. She said just 142,000 Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon are expected to be available to catch this year, a third of last year’s estimates.

Salmon fishing in California is dependent on fall-run salmon that mostly are reared in hatcheries. While government hatcheries have been breeding salmon in robust numbers, the fish face a gantlet on their runs to the ocean and their return a few years later.

Meanwhile, the status of the wild winter-run Chinook that spawn in the heat of summer along a short stretch of river below Shasta Dam also signals trouble. The National Marine Fisheries Service said recently that only 3 percent of the wild juvenile salmon survived long enough to make it out to sea last year. It marked the second straight year that the vast majority of juvenile winter-run Chinook were cooked to death in the Sacramento River. In 2014, only 5 percent of the juveniles survived.

Because winter-run Chinook can swim in the same schools as nonendangered fish, regulators say they’ll have to consider the poor winter-run numbers as they set the upcoming season.

“There’s no doubt there’s widespread concern,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. Still, he said he’s hopeful the season won’t be closed outright as it was in 2008 and 2009 because of poor returns of fall-run Chinook. State officials estimate the closures those years led to a nearly $549 million hit to California’s economy.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown asked the Obama administration to declare a federal disaster tied to the state’s closed crab season. In a Feb. 9 letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Brown said the closure has caused more than $48 million in economic losses.

A few dozen baby salmon were trapped and moved from a flooded field to other nearby habitats as part of a study that will compare how they grow in flooded rice fields compared a drainage ditch and the river.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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