Water & Drought

Dwindling salmon put fishing season in peril

Commercial and recreational anglers packed a conference room in Santa Rosa to hear state and federal fisheries officials present salmon population estimates that will be used to set the upcoming fishing seasons.
Commercial and recreational anglers packed a conference room in Santa Rosa to hear state and federal fisheries officials present salmon population estimates that will be used to set the upcoming fishing seasons. rsabalow@sacbee.com

Jym Gritzfeld, a commercial fisherman from Morro Bay, spent more than half an hour Wednesday morning in a drab conference room studying a thick packet of charts detailing last year’s salmon harvest and this year’s projected returns.

What he saw made his heart sink.

“This is suicide for us,” Gritzfeld said. “It doesn’t look good for us. It really doesn’t.”

The news didn’t get much better during the meeting he came to attend. Gritzfeld was among about 150 people – mostly recreational and commercial anglers – who filed into a conference room in Santa Rosa on Wednesday to hear presentations from state and federal fisheries managers about the dire state of salmon off the coast of California.

Regulators will use the data discussed at the meeting, as well as feedback gathered from fishermen in the next few weeks, to set the upcoming recreational and commercial salmon-fishing seasons, which tend to run from spring to fall.

Fishermen are bracing for another tough year. After a poorer-than-expected salmon harvest last year during an already-restricted season, the Chinook salmon population along the Pacific coast appears to be faring even worse in 2016.

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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, according to fisheries officials. Further south, officials estimate 300,000 adult fall-run salmon from the Sacramento River system are swimming off the coast. That’s half of what the forecasts were the past several years.

Meanwhile, only 3 percent of last year’s juvenile crop of wild winter-run Chinook survived in the Sacramento River long enough to make it out to sea. Last year’s fishing season already was restricted in some areas to protect the wild winter-run, an endangered species native to the Sacramento River.

Officials blamed the overall declines on a Pacific Ocean warmed to record temperatures by the El Niño weather pattern and poor river conditions following years of drought.

In an interview salted with curse words, Don Marshall, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay, said he already has sold off some of his fishing permits and boats to make ends meet because the harvest was so poor last year.

He said, like many other fishermen, he had hoped a good Dungeness crab season might help offset the losses, but commercial Dungeness fishing is on indefinite hold because of a massive toxic algae bloom that formed in the unusually warm Pacific waters.

“Overall, commercial fishing is taking it in the shorts right now,” said Marshall, who represents the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association.

Ben Platt, also from Half Moon Bay, urged officials to adopt as liberal a fishing season as possible to keep anglers employed.

“It could be the difference between surviving and not surviving,” he said.

The salmon fishing season was closed outright in 2008 and 2009, delivering a nearly $549 million hit to California’s economy. While an outright closure wasn’t discussed Wednesday, Harry Morse, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said consumers are certainly going to feel the pain as they shop for wild-caught salmon this year.

“The scarcer the product,” he said, “the higher the price.”

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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