With Some Chinook in Trouble, California Faces 'a Pathetic Scrap' of a Salmon Season

A chinook salmon being processed at the Mokelumne River fish hatchery east of Lodi.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

California's chinook salmon -- or some of them -- are in trouble again. And under a set of proposed rules approved Monday, that's likely to mean a very restricted salmon season for both commercial fishers and recreational anglers alike.

The Pacific Marine Fishery Council, the agency responsible for setting ocean fishing regulations for California, Oregon and Washington, on Monday adopted a set of proposals that would shut down the commercial and recreational catch of chinook salmon on the state's northernmost coast and off central and southern Oregon.

The proposed rules aim to limit damage to two imperiled runs of chinook: the Klamath River fall run and the Sacramento River winter run. Both have suffered direct and indirect impacts of drought, habitat loss and impaired flows of cold water in their spawning and rearing areas.

The proposals -- a set of season alternatives that are now out for public review before a final decision on the season is made next month -- would allow only one to two months of commercial fishing on the California coast from southern Humboldt County to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Fishery managers hope that closing the season in areas far to the north will protect the estimated 54,000 adult Klamath River fall run chinook currently in the Pacific -- the lowest number in a record going back to about 1980.

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Season dates further south are likewise designed to minimize impacts on the endangered Sacramento winter run, whose spawning numbers plunged to about 1,500 last year.

Under fishery council proposals, commercial fishing in the zone from southern Humboldt County to Point Arena in Mendocino County would be open only in September. From Point Arena to Pigeon Point, on the San Mateo Coast, fishing would open between Aug. 1 and the end of September. From Pigeon Point south to the Mexican border, commercial fishing would open only in May and June.

For comparison's sake, fishing along most of the coast south of Humboldt County was open for three to four months in 2014 and 2015 -- both years marked by forecasts of a robust population of the commercially important Sacramento River fall run.

"It's a pretty pathetic scrap of a season," Dave Bitts, a commercial fisherman from Humboldt County, said in describing the 2017 season. "But if there's fish there when it's open, hopefully some people will turn it to advantage. Otherwise, I suspect a lot of people will be looking for something else to do this summer."

Bitts, who serves on a PFMC salmon advisory panel, said he's getting ready to work on retrieving crab traps in the waters off Eureka that were buried during this winter's storms. He said he expected other fishermen to keep fishing crab this year -- the state's season runs to June 30 south of Mendocino County and to July 15 from Mendocino north -- "as long as they can make a dollar at it."

But Bitts said that those who depend on salmon for a living don't have a lot of choices.

"Some people are going to hope tuna show up," Bitts said. "In our part of the world, there's not a lot else. ... There really is not a fishery or even a complex of fisheries in the summertime that will replace salmon when salmon fall short like this. It makes things bleak."

The proposals for recreational fishing also sharply limit the season available to anglers. In the area from the San Mateo coast through Monterey Bay, anglers will get to fish only from April 1 through July 15. The season typically lasts until the end of October.

The only region with a substantially intact recreational fishing season is the one stretching from Point Arena to San Mateo County's Pigeon Point. Those waters would be open for all but two weeks of the season from April 1 through Oct. 31.

"The reason the season in Monterey are so short is they have the highest contact with the winter chinook," said Marc Gorelnik, a PFMC member and chairman of the Bay Area's Coastside Fishing Club. "San Francisco does not have anywhere near the winter-run impact."

Gorelnik added that managers are trying to strike a balance for recreational fishing -- giving the maximum number of anglers the opportunity to fish chinook while doing the least harm to stressed fisheries.

But it's not just the most seriously troubled chinook runs that are casting a shadow on this year's salmon season. Bitts, the Humboldt County fisherman, pointed to the modest estimates for this year's Sacramento River fall run chinook as another reason for concern.

The fall run is heavily bolstered by state and federal hatcheries and has produced fabulous-sounding numbers -- about 1.5 million adult chinook in 2003 and 868,000 as recently as 2013.

The Sacramento fall chinook also crashed to just 40,000 in 2009, and its numbers have been declining since that 2013 spike. This year's forecast, derived largely from the number of 2-year-old fish that returned to spawn last year, is 230,700.

"The thing that makes this season a little problematic is the overall abundance prediction is pretty low, as well," Bitts said. "Now there's a reason to think that may be a conservative prediction, but we don't know. If there's twice as many fish as predicted, [the fishing season] could turn out to be worthwhile for some people. But if there's really only 200,000 Sacramento fish in the ocean, it's probably not going to be very good fishing."

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