Sacramento and Klamath River salmon ocean abundance forecasts are down in 2016

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Hundreds of people, including commercial fishermen, charter boat skippers and recreational anglers, packed a large room at the Sonoma County Water Agency offices in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 2, to hear the discouraging news from state and federal scientists about the prospects for this year’s ocean and river salmon seasons.

Low ocean abundance forecasts for Sacramento River and Klamath Chinook fall-run Chinook salmon point to restrictions in the recreational, commercial and tribal fisheries this upcoming season, according to data released in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual salmon fishery information meeting.

Agency scientists estimate that there are approximately 299,600 adult Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon and 142,200 Klamath River fall Chinooks in the ocean this year, based on the returns of two-year-old salmon, called “jacks” and “jills,” The salmon from these two rivers comprise the majority of salmon taken in California’s ocean and inland fisheries.

“The forecasts are lower than in recent years and suggest that California fisheries may see salmon seasons in 2016 that have reduced opportunities over last year,” said Brett Kormos, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the moderator of the meeting, in a news release issued right after the meeting.

“We’re in an unprecedented situation where fishermen face constraints both in the north (Klamath) and the south (Sacramento),” said Dr. Michael O’Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

These forecasts, in addition to disturbing information on endangered Sacramento River winter Chinook salmon, will be used over the next couple of months by federal and state fishery managers to set sport and commercial fishing season dates, commercial quotas and size and bag limits.

A total of 112,434 Sacramento River fall adult salmon and 19,554 jacks returned to spawn in the river in 2015, according to Vanessa Gusman, CDFW environmental scientist. Seventeen percent of these fish were from the American Basin, 32 percent from the Feather and 49 percent from the Upper Sacramento.

The Upper Sacramento Basin saw a total of 59,507 fish, including 15,712 hatchery fish and 43,795 natural spawners. Of these fish, 54,711 were adults and 4,796 were jacks.

In the Feather River Basin, a total of 47,333 fish came back, including 20,200 hatchery fish and 27,073 natural spawners. 38,710 were adults and 8,623 were jacks.

In the American River Basin, 25,548 salmon, including 11,762 hatchery fish and 13,786 natural spawners, returned in 2015. 19,913 were adults and 11,167 were jacks.

The total escapement fell short of the targeted escapement of at least 122,000 salmon, according to O’Farrell.

This lower return of fall-run Chinooks is unlikely to constrain the 2016 fisheries, however. “If the 2015 regulations were in place this year, there is a preliminary escapement prediction of 153,300,” said O’Farrell.

The winter run’s impact on the regulations are a different story, even though only two coded wire-tagged winter-run Chinook – one caught by a recreational angler and one taken by a troller – were reported in the ocean fishery last year. O’Farrell said the winter run’s precarious status is “likely to constrain the fisheries below Point Arena.”

“The maximum allowable age 3 impact rate of winter run is 19.9 percent,” explained O’Farrell. “If the 2015 regulations were in place, there is a preliminary prediction of 17.1 percent impact rate.”

Approximately 95 percent of winter run juveniles in 2014 and 97 percent of winter Chinook juveniles in 2015 perished in the Sacramento River above Red Bluff, due to warm water conditions spurred by widely-contested water management practices by the Brown and Obama administrations. Anglers are prohibited from targeting winter Chinooks on the ocean and on the Sacramento River.

Dan Kratville of the CDFW explained his hypothesis for the massive mortality of winter run Chinook eggs and juveniles in 2014 and 2015.

“In 2014, we think that the loss of temperature control by the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) was the major cause of the loss from egg to juvenile life stages. In 2015, While the USBR never fully lost control of the temperature, we believe that the average temperatures were too high, resulting in similar losses as 2014,” said Kratville.

Leaders of fishing groups, Indian Tribes and environmental organizations have criticized the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources for draining Trinity, Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs during three years of a record drought to export water south of the Delta to agribusiness, Southern California water agencies, and oil companies conducting fracking operations.

The abundance of Klamath River fall Chinook salmon is looking worse than for the Sacramento stocks. O’Farrell said the 2016 abundance forecast for Klamath River fall Chinook is 93,393 for age 3, 45,105 for age 4 and 3,671 for age 3, a total of approximately 142,200 adults.

“Our potential spawner abundance forecast is 41,211 and we must target an escapement of at least 30,909 fish,” he said. “That’s a 25 percent exploitation rate.”

If the 2015 regulations were in place this year, the natural area spawner prediction would be only 14,540, a 65 percent exploitation rate, and natural spawner target would not be met, according to O’Farrell. The allocation of fish to the Yurok and Hoopa Valley Tribes is always 50 percent of the total harvest, so the river recreational allocation would be 32.4 percent of the non-tribal harvest.

“This no doubt will constrain the fisheries south of Cape Falcon, Oregon,” he concluded.

After the abundance forecasts and harvest model results were reviewed, anglers asked questions and made suggestions to the California Salmon Management Panel, comprised of Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), CDFW, NOAA Fisheries, and fishing group representatives. The suggestions included were delaying the opening of salmon season north of Pigeon Point to avoid winter run impacts; using the 24-inch size limit throughout the recreational fishing season; and the use of sportfishing gear and downriggers by commercial fishermen to minimize fishery impacts.

After the meeting anglers commented about the prospects for the recreational and commercial salmon seasons.

“I’m concerned about the 2016 season,” said Dick Pool, President of Water for Fish. “We have looked at the environmental conditions in 2013 when the juveniles were trying to make their way down the river through the Delta. We know a lot of fish didn’t make it.”

“I’m not optimistic that we’ll get much improvement in the salmon harvest in 2016. The biggest problem is that we need to get to work on salmon recovery projects as soon as possible,” noted Pool.

“I heard two great ideas proposed by fishermen today – the first being the 24 inch size limit to reduce impacts on winter run Chinook,” commented Mike Hudson, commercial salmon fisherman and President of the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fisherman’s Association. “The second is the concept of commercial anglers using sport gear to minimize impacts upon the winter run.”

Dan Wolford, President of the Coastside Fishing Club, said, “Both sport and commercial fishermen will have an opportunity to fish, but it will be less than last year. There are two things we don’t know yet – how much – will we be restricted a lot or a little. Second, if we have a season, will there be fish there to catch?”

He noted that although the trucking of salmon, as evidenced by the high return of Feather River hatchery salmon to fishing “is good for catching fish, I’m not so sure it’s good for the fish themselves with the straying data we have. It does clearly help the ability of us to harvest fish.

John McManus, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA, emphasized that the projection for 2016 salmon “makes clear the damage done by water diversions and drought the last several years.”

“The 2016 salmon number means more protections are needed in the Delta and Central Valley salmon habitat, not less. Any politician proposing more water diversions now from the Delta needs to look at the salmon numbers and stop proposing more harm to salmon and our coastal communities,” concluded McManus.

In addition to the salmon suffering from poor river conditions over the past three years, the CDFW noted the fish, once in the ocean, experienced El Niño conditions that “are not favorable for salmon or its prey.”

Season dates and other regulations will be developed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and California Fish and Game Commission over the next few months. For more information on the salmon season setting process or general ocean salmon fishing information, please visit the Ocean Salmon Project website or call the salmon fishing hotline at (707) 576-3429.

As recreational, commercial and tribal fishing families face restrictions this year, Governor Jerry Brown continues to promote his “California Water Fix” plan to build the Delta Tunnels. The project, estimated to cost up to $68 billion, would hasten the extinction of Sacramento winter Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species. The tunnels would also imperil the salmon and steelhead fisheries of the Klamath and Trinity rivers.