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California’s Commercial Salmon Season Is Closed Again This Year

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Boats and docks as the sun sets.
Empty docks at Fisherman's Warf on April 10, 2024.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Not enough salmon will swim up the state’s rivers to spawn this year to make a commercial salmon season viable, the Pacific Fishery Management Council announced late Wednesday.

“The number of fish that could be available for harvest was so small there was risk that we wouldn’t be able to conduct a fishery and stay within our limitations,” Robin Ehlke, a staff officer with the Salmon and Pacific Halibut Pacific Fishery Management Council, told KQED. 

This is the second year in a row that the council voted to close the season, which hundreds of commercial fishers and tribes rely on for their livelihoods and food supplies. This year’s scarcity of Chinook salmon is tied to California’s last drought. The fish have a three-year lifecycle, so the returning fish were born when there wasn’t enough water to thrive. The issues threatening the species extend well beyond the recent dry years.

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“We hope the decision gives the benefit to the fish so they can rebuild themselves and be available for fisheries in future years,” Ehlke said.

California’s water management decisions have played a significant role in the species’ decline over the years — cutting off the fish from spawning grounds and decreasing the cold water the salmon need.

State leaders unveiled a blueprint to boost salmon populations in January, including tearing down dams that block salmon from spawning grounds and restoring some river flows. However, scientists and environmental groups argue that the pace of the work is too slow and that some salmon runs may not exist by the time the state completes the projects.

‘It comes down to water’

The closing of the salmon season will force Matt Juanes, who docks his green and white 36-foot-long boat, Plumeria, at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, to diversify his income this year. Juanes said he will likely lose nearly half his income. “This year is going to be very difficult,” he said.

A man dressed in black jacket and a black beanie stands on a boat surrounded by orange and white boating supplies. The sky behind him is purple and pink
Commercial salmon fisher Matt Juanes prepares to set sail at Pier 47 in San Francisco on June 7, 2023. With California’s salmon season shut down this year, Juanes is pivoting to fish for crab and using his boat to charter tourists. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

He’s fished salmon for six years, and the numbers seem to dwindle each season, he said. The closure of the fishery was a gut punch, but he agreed that it was a necessary step for the species to rebound.

“I’d rather see the fish go back up the river,” he said. “It comes down to water. If it had rained, we probably wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

Drought isn’t the only factor contributing to the demise of California’s salmon.

Also to blame is a warming and acidifying oceantoxic dust from tires that kills the fish in hours, dams blocking migration paths, managers diverting water flows for storage and climate-fueled storms complicating river systems.

With all these challenges, the state could lose nearly half of its native salmon and trout species within 50 years, according to a study co-authored by UC Davis professor Robert Lusardi.

Lusardi, who studies freshwater ecology and wetlands, said the closure of the salmon season is a direct result of humans’ alteration of the salmon habitat. Nearly 2 million salmon historically swam up rivers within the Central Valley. This year, Lusardi expects just over 200,000 to spawn.

“What we have left are small populations that I would argue are not diverse, which means they are incapable of acclimating to changing environments,” he said.

‘We need these habitats like yesterday’

In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined his administration’s strategy to restore salmon populations “amidst hotter and drier weather exacerbated by climate change.” The sprawling plan includes improving salmon migration pathways, tearing down dams that block fish from spawning, updating hatcheries and restoring flows in some waterways.

California — alongside environmental groups, tribes and scientists — has started to restore floodplains where juvenile fish can grow into what conservationists call “floodplain fatties,” a nickname for the well-fed salmon that feed off bugs in flooded areas. The state is removing four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River partly so fish have more room to spawn.

“That’s a beacon of hope for the future, but it has to happen at a faster rate,” Lusardi said. “We need these habitats like yesterday.”

State scientists, including Colin Purdy, environmental program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, are tasked with implementing the governor’s plan. They have a considerable feat ahead of them. While some of the actions outlined in the state’s new blueprint are already underway, Purdy said changing how fisheries operate “takes years of doing pilot studies to flesh out the details” before hatchery managers can reintroduce the fish into habitats.

“The sooner we can get started on that stuff, the better,” he said.

The Golden State Salmon Association and other groups critiqued the governor’s plan. They argue that while it has some suitable components, California is also pursuing projects — a new reservoir and a 45-mile water tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to divert more water south — that could decrease the amount of cold water in rivers where salmon need to live.

“We’re being distracted by this smoke and mirrors scenario,” said Scott Artis, the association’s executive director. “If we don’t address the water diversions, we’re going to continue to see salmon numbers decline, and we’re going to continue to be in a situation where there are closures.”

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