Zero-salmon bag

New fishing ban may force action on salmon collapse

Rene Villanueva shows off a fat kokanee salmon taken this May at Lake Berryessa.

Rene Villanueva shows off a fat kokanee salmon taken this May at Lake Berryessa.

Photo By Dan Bacher

Dan Bacher is editor of the Elk Grove-based Fish Sniffer magazine and a board member of the Water for Fish coalition and the Upper American River Foundation.

Fishing for chinook salmon on the Sacramento and American rivers in downtown Sacramento, just a short distance from the state Capitol, is a unique tradition that has been an integral, iconic component of life in the capital city for decades. Every September and October, crowds of boaters and shore anglers descend on the river—along the stretch from Discovery Park to Miller Park—in the early morning hours. They’re out there in the hopes of hooking large, hard-fighting salmon on their annual spawning migration from the Pacific Ocean to hatcheries and spawning gravels on the Sacramento, American and Feather rivers.

But this year is different, since salmon fishing in the Sacramento area will be banned because of the collapse of Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon populations. While more than 800,000 fish returned to spawn in the Sacramento River system in 2002, fishery scientists expect less than 60,000 to come back this year. In an unprecedented action, the California Fish and Game Commission voted on May 9 to adopt a “zero bag limit” for salmon—meaning that no salmon may be taken or possessed—in 14 Central Valley rivers and streams.

The only exception is a one salmon bag limit in the Sacramento River from Red Bluff Diversion Dam to Knights Landing from November 1 to December 31. To the surprise of many anglers who expected that spring chinook fishing on the American and Feather rivers would remain open, these rivers will be also be closed to the take of spring-run chinook also. These new regulations will go into effect on or before July 15.

“The department proposed and recommended this option because of concerns about impacts to spring chinook salmon,” said Steve Martarano, Department of Fish and Game spokesman. “This option will provide maximum protection to Sacramento River fall chinook in the Central Valley, while providing very limited access to late fall chinook.”

Anglers will still be able to fish for rainbow trout, steelhead, shad, sturgeon, striped bass, catfish, black bass and other species on the Sacramento River and its tributaries. Although catch-and-release fishing for salmon is not specifically prohibited, the department is advising anglers against it.

This river closure follows the closure of all recreational and commercial ocean salmon fishing in California and most of Oregon in April by the federal regulatory body, the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The closure is expected to have a devastating economic impact upon businesses, charter captains and fishing guides that depend on salmon fishing for their income.

According to Neil Manji, branch chief of the DFG’s inland fisheries division, the closure of salmon fishing on Central Valley rivers will cause an estimated loss of more than $20 million to the state’s economy. The anticipated economic loss to California of the closure of the recreational ocean salmon fishery will be around $167 million, while the economic loss of the commercial fishery will be approximately $63 million.

Dick Pool, owner of the Pro-Troll Fishing Tackle Company in Concord, Calif., and coordinator of the Water for Fish coalition (, ranks the Central Valley salmon collapse as one of the country’s top 10 man-made fishery disasters.

“The economic consequences of the loss are staggering and reach all the way to Alaska,” said Pool. “We believe history will rank this disaster in the same category as the Exxon Valdez, the collapse of the New England cod fishery and the collapse of the Atlantic striped bass fishery in the 1980s.”

The closure is expected to have a huge impact on the incomes of local fishing guides, including Capt. René Villanueva of Steelie Dan’s Guide Service in Elk Grove. While some guides will move on to other jobs, Villanueva plans to stick it out through the tough times caused by the chinook collapse by fishing for trout and landlocked salmon on inland lakes and for striped bass on the California Delta.

“Fortunately, I have the option of fishing landlocked king salmon and kokanee salmon at Berryessa, Folsom, Don Pedro and other lakes,” Villanueva said. “I also plan to continue booking spring and fall striped bass trips. Of course, I won’t be able to book as many trips as I normally do, because I have earned my reputation as a salmon and striper guide. King salmon are the most highly prized fish, the one that the majority of my customers prefer to catch.”

State and federal government officials claim that “ocean conditions” are the likely culprit behind the salmon collapse. “The West Coast salmon fishery disaster was likely driven primarily by poor ocean conditions for salmon survival,” concluded Rod McInnis, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service during a recent congressional Hearing in Washington, D.C., “although scientists acknowledge that conditions in the freshwater habitat for salmon have had an impact on the population’s resilience to natural cycles in the ocean conditions.”

However, a broad coalition of recreational and commercial fishermen, American Indian tribes, conservation groups and some prominent scientists contend the collapse was spurred by increased water exports from California, declining water quality, poor hatchery salmon-release practices and other man-made problems.

Following the hearing, Roger Thomas, president of the Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association and a key witness at the hearing, said, “Blaming the primary cause of this catastrophe on ocean conditions stinks of rotten politics from top to bottom. We need straight talk and help from the fishery agencies, not weak excuses.”

“Ocean conditions are undoubtedly a factor in the collapse, but the export of water to agribusiness and Southern California through the Delta pumps is the most critical problem the fishery faces,” said Villanueva, a long-time member of the California Striped Bass Association, who attended recent meetings of the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sacramento. He also pointed to the need to install new fish screens on the state and federal pumps to stop the killing of thousands of juvenile salmon and other fish every year.

Water agencies have refused to pay for state-of-the-art fish screens that were required in the 2000 CALFED Record of Decision as mitigation for exporting water, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. Some of the largest annual water export levels in history occurred in 2003 (6.3 million acre feet), 2004 (6.1 MAF), 2005 (6.5 MAF and 2006 (6.3 MAF). Exports averaged 4.6 MAF annually between 1990 and 1999 and increased to an average of 6 MAF between 2000 and 2007, a rise of almost 30 percent.

Dennis Phanner, owner of Sacramento Pro Tackle, whose shop is located near Discovery Park at the mouth of the Sacramento and American rivers, said the salmon closure will cost an estimated 18 to 22 percent loss in his business. Ironically, he is glad that the salmon season has been closed, since he believes it may spur action by the state and federal governments.

“Maybe now the state and federal governments will start pointing fingers to address the problems behind the salmon decline,” Phanner observed. “When all is said and done, I’ll bet you a $1,000 bill that the reason for the sudden decline is that too much water is being taken out of the Delta. As a local business owner, I can put up with fighting with the Wal-Marts and Kmarts, but I can’t put up with increased water exports.