Environment

Fewer salmon at the Golden Gate may mean less fishing in Northern California rivers

Fishing Guide Jeff Gonzales pilots a boat down the Sacramento River to take clients on a salmon fishing trip near Los Molinos before sunrise in September 2015.  Salmon fishing seasons on rivers such as the Sacramento may be curtailed in the coming months due to low numbers of fish.
Fishing Guide Jeff Gonzales pilots a boat down the Sacramento River to take clients on a salmon fishing trip near Los Molinos before sunrise in September 2015. Salmon fishing seasons on rivers such as the Sacramento may be curtailed in the coming months due to low numbers of fish. rbenton@sacbee.com

Anglers hoping to catch Chinook salmon this year along the San Francisco Bay and in the Central Valley's rivers are likely to see curtailed fishing seasons, due to poor fish numbers linked to California's historic five-year drought.

On Thursday, state and federal fisheries regulators released their annual salmon estimates used to set fishing seasons and catch quotas for commercial and recreational salmon anglers.

For the third year in a row, biologists forecast low numbers of adult fish swimming in the Pacific Ocean outside of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fisheries regulators now consider the population "overfished," said Harry Morse, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"The bottom line is there's going to be a restricted number of fish to be divided up," he said.

Next week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, made up of West Coast fisheries regulators, will begin the process of setting the regulations for the upcoming ocean and inland fishing seasons.

Morse said anglers who fish off San Francisco Bay and in rivers such as the Sacramento, Feather and American probably will see some combination of reduced fishing quotas or shorter seasons.

At least one fishing group takes issue with the numbers, saying the population estimates are overly conservative.

"There's a whole bunch more fish out in the ocean this year that aren't being taken into account in the season-setting process," said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

McManus also took issue with the use of the phrase "overfished." He said any decline in fish numbers has nothing to do with anglers catching too many fish. Instead, he blamed decisions state and federal water and dam managers made during the drought to allow less cold water, vital to salmon, to flow through the Central Valley's rivers.

"We're paying the price," he said.

Thursday's news wasn't all bad for all of California's Chinook, often called "kings."

Further north near the Oregon border, the numbers of Klamath River Chinook greatly improved. Last year, the Klamath Chinook fishing season was completely closed due to record low numbers of fish. Those fish are an important source of food, revenue and an integral part of the traditional lifestyles for three Native American tribes along the Klamath and its main tributary, the Trinity River.

This year, biologists estimate there are 359,200 adult salmon about to enter the Klamath. Last year, there were just 54,200. Morse said the numbers have improved to the point that regulators probably will allow for a typical Klamath fishing season.

Chinook live two or three years in the Pacific Ocean before adult fish head back upriver to lay their eggs and die, starting the cycle anew.

Fish hatched in California’s five-year drought that ended officially last spring will return to Central Valley rivers this year.

The drought played havoc on salmon runs, which need cold water to thrive. It left the Central Valley’s rivers languid, clear and warm for long stretches – terrible conditions for a young salmon. Ocean conditions also were poor. Returns of spring- and winter-run Chinook born during the drought are among the lowest on record. Anglers are only allowed to target fall-run Chinook, which are reared almost entirely in hatcheries built below the dams that block their traditional spawning grounds.

The runs are named for the season when the majority of the adult fish enter freshwater.

In what's likely to signal more shortages for anglers in the years ahead, a key California hatchery is struggling to produce enough juvenile fish this year.

In 2017, only around 3,000 Chinook returned to Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Anderson. That was only enough to fertilize about 6 million eggs – well shy of the Coleman National Fish Hatchery's 12 million goal. Coleman is the state's most productive salmon hatchery.

Fishing advocates say fall-run Chinook support $1.4 billion in annual economic activity in California and about 23,000 fishing related jobs while providing locally caught fish for Californians’ dinner tables.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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