Fishing season canceled: Feds close chinook salmon season in California due to drought effects
Chinook salmon along the coast of California and southern Oregon Coast continue to suffer lingering impacts from the region's mega-drought, and it has cost fishermen a chinook season this spring.
It's also likely chinook salmon fishing will remain closed off the California coast for the next year as the Pacific Fishery Management Council tries to help the fish rebuild from years of record drought.
Given conditions in the Klamath and Sacramento rivers over the last year, the canceling of a season in April and early May wasn't a surprise to sport fisherman Jim Yarnall, a member of the council’s salmon advisory subpanel of fishing and tribal representatives.
The season, which could have taken place along the California coast and northward to Cape Falcon, Oregon through May 15 was canceled to protect fall chinook in the Sacramento River, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service.
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Salmon in California's Sacramento River were at near-record low numbers last year, and the Klamath River fall chinook had the second lowest abundance forecast since current assessment methods began in 1997.
The proposed management plan for the California coast for the coming year includes no alternatives that allow fishermen to keep chinook salmon, but a limited season is possible off southern Oregon. After a public hearing, the Council will meet in early April to finalize the schedule.
Drought impacts salmon
Salmon, including chinook, California’s predominant species, rely on plentiful waters to hatch and travel from their spawning grounds to the ocean, and then to migrate back again and drop the eggs that produce the next generation of fish.
Water in California and much of the west has been anything but plentiful for years.
Low river flows and high river water temperatures have affected the salmon's survival, especially as they emerge as eggs and need to go downstream to the ocean, said Robin Ehlke, salmon staff officer for the management council. "There are just less and less fish."
It’s likely some fish also die as they return to spawning grounds
Banner seasons in the past couple of years, even though limited, may also have played a role.
Scientists use models to estimate how many fish there are and anticipate fishing pressure from commercial and recreational fishermen, based on data for catch and field surveys for returning salmon.
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Their current forecasts for the Sacramento river chinook are low and not much above the goal needed to ensure viability, Ehlke said. “Right now some of those salmon stocks are forecast to be at a low level and it would be pretty risky to have a fishery and not meet those conservation goals."
For the past couple of years, the models used to estimate fish populations have been performing poorly, thanks to the impacts of climate change and the drought, Yarnall said. “The people running these models, they’re pulling their hair out. It’s an unfortunate place where we are and it’s going to impact a lot of livelihoods.”
A complex puzzle
Managing the salmon, the region’s water supply and the fishing seasons is a complex puzzle, Yarnall said. That’s in part because it would be hard to “butcher a watershed much more” than the present-day Sacramento-San Juaquin regional river system, with all its dams and reservoirs, he said.
Federal and state water managers juggle all the moving parts, trying to manage water flow for flood control, agriculture irrigation, public water supply and wildlife. Sometimes, Yarnall said, “the fish get the short end of the stick.”
How are salmon fishing seasons set?
Seasons are set a year in advance, with the possibility of amendment.
NOAA Fisheries gives the management council and its advisory panel guidance on the numbers they expect to see.
State fisheries managers release abundance numbers.
The council knows it needs to get a set amount of salmon back out of the ocean and up the rivers to their spawning grounds to keep a healthy stock of salmon, Ehlke said.
The council and its advisory panels craft proposed seasons that meet the minimum goals
A public hearing and comment period take place
A final proposal is forwarded to NOAA Fisheries for review and approval.
Having no spring season was one option crafted by the advisory panel last year for the annual management plan for 2022-2023, she said. Based on that advice, the council concluded the no fishing option was the most reasonable and posed the least risk.
“Obviously everyone wants to fish, but most fishermen understood the status of where the salmon are and understand they need to make sure those salmon stocks remain healthy,” she said. “Taking a pause of a year — so hopefully the salmon has time to regain their strength — seems appropriate.”
Hope for the future
Yarnall remains optimistic about the chinook in California.
“If there’s a silver lining in all of this, California has been wet here since December,” he said. “Snowpack is high. The reservoirs are filling and salmon are an amazingly resilient species.”
“If we get out of the way and given half a chance,” he said, “you can see them bouncing right back in three years to an abundant fish stock.”
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Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environment issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or at @dinahvp on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fishing season canceled: Feds close California chinook salmon season