Salmon for dinner?

Though limited, there will be a chinook fishing season this year

Photo by Bruce Forman, courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife

For those of us hankering to pursue the finest of seafoods, the figurative glass contains half the water it could. That is, some fishermen are relieved by the season options newly proposed by fishery managers, while others are dearly disappointed.

The agreement settled upon March 14 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council promises we will be fishing in California this year. There are three options on the table, each of which allows fishing through October. The council will meet again on April 11 and make a decision on which plan will be the one implemented.

In short, the outlook isn’t bad—and it comes as a surprise given we saw a direly low return of fall-run Sacramento River chinook in 2017. Still, overall abundance of fish off the California coast right now is estimated to be quite high—better than last year—and even in the most restrictive of scenarios, we will be fishing by July 21.

Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, will be looking at a severely restricted season. Of their three options, each one prohibits salmon fishing in July from Point Arena in Mendocino County to Pigeon Point south of San Francisco. One of the alternatives on the table allows fishing only in September and on several days in October. Commercial fishermen might also have a week to fish in mid-June.

At the Coastside Fishing Club, a prominent fishing advocacy group in San Mateo, club member Dan Wolford is looking at the coming summer with a glass-half-empty stance. He was hoping for a longer recreational fishing season. In a recent press release issued in response to the management council’s season options, he argued that fishermen are being punished for flawed management of water by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which many environmental and fishery groups have blamed for failing to keep river conditions downstream of dams suitable for spawning salmon, especially during the drought.

“While [the chinook’s] depressed status is the result of inland water management practices, it is the fishermen that are losing a big chunk of their season in order to rebuild these stocks,” Wolford said.

Still, fishermen might consider themselves very lucky that they’ll be fishing for salmon at all this year. The 2017 return of Sacramento River fall-run chinook was the second lowest on record. Just 44,000 of the fish swam up the river last fall—about 15 percent of the long-term historical average—and only a notch above the 2009 return of 40,000 fish, when fishing was closed entirely for two years.

On the heels of such a poor return of spawning fish, why are we being allowed on the water at all? National Marine Fisheries Service biologists, it turns out, have calculated there are almost 600,000 fall-run chinook in the ocean off the California coast—229,400 of Sacramento River origin, and 359,200 fish from the Klamath. In total, that would make salmon more plentiful this year than they were last year, which was hailed by many as the best fishing season in recent memory.

But the late start to a fishing season that sometimes kicks off in April bothers many anglers. Wolford, for one, warns fishermen will suffer the consequences of low salmon numbers until rivers are managed with an eye toward maintaining plentiful stocks.

“Until salmon receive adequate flows of cold water in their spawning and rearing areas, salmon abundance will remain low regardless of whether fishing is allowed or not,” he said. “Continuing to ask fishermen to carry the burden of fixing a problem they did not create is unjustified.”