California Fish and Game Commission gives river anglers a shot at Chinook
Their numbers have never been lower, yet in these troubled times for the Sacramento River’s chinook salmon, state fisheries managers have for the second year in a row scheduled a recreational fishing season for late-fall-run salmon between the Red Bluff Diversion Dam and Knights Landing.
Biologists with the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) assure that the take will minimally impact the species, and Sacramento River fishing guides took so few fish last fall they can almost remember each individual salmon landed, yet ocean commercial fishermen, whose season has been canceled for two years running, aren’t pleased by the in-river allowance.
At a DFG meeting in Santa Rosa in late April, a group of California commercial fishermen argued against the freshwater fishery before officials with the department, which provides data for the state Fish and Game Commission, the body that ultimately sets fishery regulations.
“I don’t like the inequality of this,” said Dan Wolford, a board member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which attended the meeting and voiced opposition to the river season. “I understand that there is a possible season structure that would allow them to cleanly catch only late-fall fish without touching the fall run, so the question is, ‘Can they do it? Can they catch the late-fall salmon without catching the fall run or winter-run fish?’ ”
DFG officials believe so. The season has been precisely slotted for Nov. 16 to Dec. 31, a time frame they hope will preclude the capture of any fall-run chinook, whose numbers have crashed in the last six years, and winter-run chinook, an endangered species that spawns between January and March. Last season, the in-river harvest of 1,732 chinooks took place between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 and included as many as 60 individuals from the fall run, according to official estimates.
“But shortening this year’s season will make it more certain that we’ll avoid contact with the fall run,” said Rob Titus, a senior environmental scientist with the DFG.
The fish count of fall-run chinook, once the backbone of a strong resource, has plummeted from more than 800,000 spawners in 2002 to just 66,000 last season. Extinction is a real concern, while causes of the crash remain the subject of debate.
The late-fall chinook, on the other hand, is considered relatively healthy. The annual returns have averaged roughly 14,000 fish for the last six years, with a spike in 2002, when 40,000 fish returned to Battle Creek to spawn. Last year, 10,000 late-fall chinooks safely completed the journey.
DFG senior biologist Scott Barrow said the late-fall run “has been fairly stable” over a period of several decades, and the expected harvest of approximately 2,000 fish this year is not believed to be a threat to the stability of the run, largely a product of the Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.
While river fishermen can strategically target particular runs of salmon, ocean fishermen cannot, says Barrow. During their four to six years at sea, all chinook salmon—fall, late-fall, winter and spring—school together, and all are susceptible to capture if any lines go in the water.
The state’s economy will be taking a $280 million hit with the closure of the 2009 commercial ocean salmon season, said Barrow, and the Sacramento River salmon season will help to offset a portion of the economic impact. Nonetheless, many Sacramento River guiding services are suffering. Some of those that once relied on salmon fishing are out of business, while others barely are afloat.
“The fall run was once our bread and butter; the three-weeks-with-no-sleep time of the year,” said Bill Divens, owner of Salmon King Lodge of Red Bluff. “Then the closure hit, and we lost about three-fourths of our income.”
Divens has had to expand his business to include Sacramento River trout fishing, Trinity River steelheading, and land-locked chinook salmon fishing in Lake Shasta. Meanwhile, Frank Townley, a 30-year veteran guide in Corning, also has remained in business by drawing off of other fisheries. The Klamath River now provides his best salmon fishing.
“Economically, I’m down about 25 to 30 percent since we lost the salmon,” Townley said.
Last year’s late-fall run produced slow fishing, and during 28 days on the water his 60-odd anglers brought in just 34 fish.
Townley notes that the fall run of chinooks collapsed right on cue with boosted water exports to the San Joaquin Valley, and he doesn’t believe that the late-fall-run season seriously affects the more threatened runs that enter the river before and after.
Divens agrees. He says incidental catch of fall-run fish, while probably unavoidable, is negligible. Better water-management practices, he said, “would save way more smolts than any adult fall fish lost as bycatch during the late-fall season.”
The DFG has predicted that 122,000 fall-run fish will return this year, almost twice last year’s return yet nothing like the old days. While fine-tuning the late-fall season length may save several dozen of these spawners from incidental catch this November and December, Divens doubts that substantial re-growth of the fishery will ever occur until the government caps water exports to the south.
“Until then, the cotton farmers in Fresno are driving Mercedes,” he quipped. “For them, everything’s fine.”