Water & Drought

California faces another bleak salmon-fishing season, a holdover from the drought

Oroville Dam spillway endangers baby salmon

As the Feather River below the Oroville Dam spillway turned brown with silt, staff members with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife raced to transport by truck 4 million baby salmon from a downstream hatchery, fearing they would die in
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As the Feather River below the Oroville Dam spillway turned brown with silt, staff members with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife raced to transport by truck 4 million baby salmon from a downstream hatchery, fearing they would die in

California salmon anglers are looking at another bleak fishing season, despite the remarkably wet winter – a lingering impact from the state’s five-year drought.

This week, state and federal fisheries regulators released their estimates for the numbers of adult fall-run Chinook salmon swimming off California’s coast. The news was even more grim than the drought-weakened numbers of fish last year.

An estimated 54,200 adult fall-run Chinook salmon reared in the Klamath River are swimming off the Pacific Coast – among the lowest number on record and down from 142,000 in 2016. Of the adult fish reared in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, biologists estimate there are 230,700 in the Pacific Ocean – 70,000 fewer than last year.

The reason for the declines? The adult fish set to return to Central Valley rivers to spawn were hatched two to four years ago, during the peak of California’s record-breaking drought when river and ocean conditions were abysmal.

Salmon from the Sacramento and Klamath river systems account for the vast majority of salmon caught by anglers in California’s rivers and along the coast. They’re considered critical to the state’s commercial and recreational salmon industries, which account for an estimated $1.4 billion in annual economic activity.

The report comes as state biologists are in crisis mode to rescue stranded baby salmon in the Feather River, a key Sacramento River tributary. On Monday, the operators of Oroville Dam shut down flows from its damaged main spillway to assess damage and clear debris in the channel below. The sudden drop in flows in the Feather River downstream stranded thousands of fish in low-lying areas along the river channel.

Since Tuesday, crews of state biologists have combed the river banks in a frantic effort to rescue as many fish as possible. As of Thursday morning, they’d rescued more than 1,300 juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon, as well as 14 spring-run and nine winter-run Chinook, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

California’s winter-run Chinook have been listed as endangered by the federal government since 1994. Spring-run Chinook are listed as threatened.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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