As drought dried up the rivers that carry California’s newly hatched chinook salmon to the ocean, state officials have resorted in recent years to loading the fish by the millions onto trucks and barges to take them to the Peaceful.
The surreal and desperate stampede boosted the survival rate of hatchery-bred fish, but it was not enough to reverse declining stocks in the face of additional challenges. River water temperatures have risen with the warm weather, and a rollback in federal protections for waterways during the Trump era has allowed more water to be diverted to farms. Climate change, meanwhile, threatens food sources for young Chinooks maturing in the Pacific.
Now the sea salmon fishing season is set to be banned this year off California and much of Oregon for the second time in 15 years after adult chinook, often known as salmon royal, returned to California rivers in near record numbers in 2022.
“There won’t be any wild California salmon to eat unless someone still had some vacuum sealed last year in their freezer,” said John McManus of the Golden State Salmon Association.
Experts fear California’s native salmon, which forms a major part of the Pacific Northwest’s fishing industry, is spiraling toward extinction. Much of the salmon caught off Oregon comes from California’s Klamath and Sacramento rivers. After hatching in fresh water, they spend an average of three years maturing in the Pacific, where many are caught by commercial fishermen, before migrating to their spawning grounds, where conditions are more ideal for giving birth. After laying eggs, they die.
Already, the California Spring Chinook is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while the Winter Chinook is endangered along with California’s Central Coast Coho Salmon, which have been off-limits to California commercial fishers since the 1990s.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the authority responsible for setting ocean salmon seasons off the Pacific coast, is expected to formally approve in early April its proposal to close the chinook fishery along the coast from Cape Falcon in northern Oregon on the California-Mexico border. Salmon season is expected to open as usual north of Cape Falcon, including the Columbia River and off the coast of Washington.
Although the shutdown will deal a heavy blow to the industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs, few dispute it.
“We want to make sure they’re here for the future,” said third-generation angler Garin McCarthy, who described catching a Chinook as “magical”.
McCarthy, whose entire income last year came from salmon fishing off California and Oregon, has had to invest thousands of dollars in gear to catch other species like rockfish, halibut and black cod.
“We’re all trying to get our boats to do something different,” he said. “We are all salmon fishermen. This is what we do. This is what we live for.
Glen Spain, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said he thinks the ban may need to be in place for two or three years to bring back sustainable stocks after many fish died in 2020, the start of a period of record drought. .
The Chinook was already facing challenges, with dams blocking their historic retreats to the cold upper reaches of the Sacramento River in Northern California and the Klamath River along the California-Oregon border. Decades of development have disrupted the natural flow of rivers and polluted waters.
In 2020, the Trump administration ended federal protections for millions of waterways, allowing more water to be pumped from the Sacramento River Basin for agriculture despite warnings from biologists that it could harm salmon runs in the future.
Fishermen say river water temperatures have risen with diversions for irrigation, killing more eggs and hatchlings and preventing stocks from bouncing back amid the drought.
“This one’s not on us,” said Bob Maharry, 68, a longtime San Francisco-based angler. “It has nothing to do with overfishing. This is poor water management.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the estimated number of adult Fall Chinooks expected to return to spawn in the Sacramento River this year is less than 170,000, one of the lowest predictions since the method began. current assessment in 2008. Fewer than 104,000 Fall Chinook are likely to return to the Klamath River, the second-lowest estimate since 1997.
In 2021, a judge determined that the Trump administration had improperly limited federal protections and restored them to a narrower 1986 standard. The Biden administration is expected to expand protections in 2024.
Some are counting on the exceptionally wet winter to bring relief. Record rainfall and snowfall since late last year has freed two-thirds of California from drought. But too much water could also flush out eggs and hatchlings.
Salmon-related businesses want the government to declare the situation a federal disaster so they can get help. As the market shrinks, more restaurants are switching to farmed salmon, while gear suppliers stop stocking the proper gear to fish for chinook.
“Unfortunately, not everyone is going to get away with this type of closure,” said Andy Giuliano, owner of Fish Emeryville, a bait and tackle store and booking service for 16 charter boats that offer trips. salmon fishing to tourists in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It’s a real stress test for the industry.”
Eric Schindler, ocean salmon project manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he “didn’t expect it to be this drastic,” assuming the year would bring restrictions but not a full shutdown for most of Oregon.
Jeff Reeves, who has fished salmon in the Coos Bay, Oregon area since the 1970s and is also a member of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said he plans to fish for rockfish, black cod and maybe some tuna. Later this year, he plans to target Oregon coho salmon, which are doing well enough to fish unlike California coho. But that won’t make up for the loss of the Chinook, which is a larger, oilier fish that’s in higher demand.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “The Oregon fleet is already on life support,” which has fallen from a height of about 4,500 boats to about 180 today, he added.
On a stretch of the Klamath River in northern California, the Yurok Tribe has watched the decimation of the culturally important salmon population for years. Barry McCovey Jr., director of the tribe’s fisheries department, said the tribe’s Chinook allotment will likely be very small this year.
However, he hopes planned removal of four dams on the Klamath River will improve the future of the fish.
“It’s not a silver bullet, but a big step in the right direction,” McCovey said. “There are still a lot of battles to be fought if we want to have coho and chinook.”