Fished out

Ocean conditions, Delta pumping lead to another dismal year for salmon

The 2009 numbers for Sacramento’s fall chinook salmon run aren’t as bad as last year’s, but offer little else to cheer about.

The 2009 numbers for Sacramento’s fall chinook salmon run aren’t as bad as last year’s, but offer little else to cheer about.

Photo Courtesy of DWR

Dan Bacher is the editor of the Elk Grove-based Fish Sniffer magazine and a longtime advocate for fishery restoration in California and the West.

Commercial and recreational salmon fishermen face another year of fishing closures in ocean waters off California and Oregon, due to the collapse of the Sacramento River fall chinook salmon population. All Central Valley rivers will also be closed to salmon fishing, with the exception of a November through December season on the Sacramento from Red Bluff to Knights Landing.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council at press time was deciding on one final fishing-season option to be submitted for approval to the secretary of commerce, but the prospects were grim.

“Commercial ocean salmon fishing will be closed in California in 2009,” said Donald McIsaac, executive director of the PFMC. “California ocean sport-fishing options range from entirely closed to 10 open days in August and September in the Eureka/Crescent City area.”

An unprecedented low return of 66,264 adult fall chinooks on the Sacramento River in 2008 led to the closure of salmon fishing off California and Oregon for the first time in 150 years. While this year’s returns are better than last year’s, the season options are still very limited.

Even without any fishing, only 122,196 fish are expected to return to the Sacramento River this year. The Sacramento run, the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries, numbered nearly 800,000 fish only seven years ago.

State and federal government agency representatives last year pointed to poor ocean conditions as the cause of the collapse, while fishing and environmental groups contended that freshwater conditions, including increases in California Delta water exports, have led to the run’s demise.

A report released by the National Marine Fisheries Service on March 25 reiterated that poor ocean conditions were the collapse’s “proximate” cause, but conceded the role of the degradation of Central Valley rivers and Delta in the collapse. “The rapid and likely temporary deterioration in ocean conditions is acting on top of a long-term, steady degradation of the freshwater and estuarine environment,” the study stated.

A rewritten draft “biological opinion” issued by the same agency in December concluded that increases in Delta exports and the operation of Shasta Dam and other reservoirs pose “jeopardy” to the existence of imperiled Central Valley spring-run and winter-run salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and the southern resident killer whale population.

Recreational and commercial fishermen support closed and limited salmon seasons this year, but emphasized that the agencies must take action to address the crisis.

“We’re still crossing our figures on the possibility of having a 2010 season,” said Dick Pool, administrator of the Water for Fish coalition ( “However, without solving the problems that salmon encounter on the Delta and Central Valley rivers, we won’t be able to rebuild the natural stocks.”

The collapse has led to economic devastation for coastal and Sacramento Valley communities dependent upon salmon fishing. Last year’s closure resulted in the loss of $255 million and 2,263 jobs for the California economy.

“The collapse of salmonid fisheries has led to a corresponding depression in the recreational fishing industry,” said California Sportfishing Protection Alliance executive director Bill Jennings. “It makes no sense to sacrifice California’s historic fishing industry in order to supply subsidized water to grow subsidized nonfood crops on impaired desert lands that by design discharge toxic wastes back to Central Valley waterways.”

California’s freshwater recreational fishery generates $1.5 billion in retail sales, $2.5 billion in trip-related expenses and almost 27,000 jobs. The marine recreational fishery generates $3.7 billion in retail sales, $1.9 billion in value-added impacts and almost 23,000 jobs.

In a recent legislative hearing convened by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, scientists, fishermen and environmentalists urged the government to take immediate action.

“The fish don’t lie,” said UC Davis fisheries expert Peter Moyle, author of a January 2008 report commissioned by California Trout on the status of California’s native salmon and trout populations. “The story they tell is that California’s environment is unraveling.”

“There are a myriad of problems facing salmon, but what has to be done before anything else, and above all else, is restoring water flows in the Delta and our coastal streams,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Environmental and fishing groups believe that improvements in California’s water management and aggressive development of locally based water supplies are an important way to curb pressure on imperiled salmon.

“We can save our California salmon by being more reasonable and innovative with our water use,” said Mindy McIntyre, the Planning and Conservation League’s water program manager. “Certainly salmon are more integrally a part of California than our lawns.”