Low Ocean Salmon Abundance Points To Restricted 2016 Season

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The federal government last week released its data on the projections for the upcoming ocean and river salmon seasons in California and Southern Oregon — and it’s not looking good.

Commercial and recreational anglers are bracing for further fishing restrictions this season, based on relatively low abundance estimates for Sacramento River and Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon, the two drivers of the West Coast fishery. The estimate of Sacramento River salmon that can be found in the ocean in 2016 is less than half of last year’s forecast of 652,000 fish.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), a quasi-governmental body that crafts the seasons and regulations for salmon, groundfish and other fisheries, forecasts an ocean abundance of approximately 300,000 (299,600) Sacramento River adult fall run king salmon off the California and Oregon coast this year. This compares to forecasts above 600,000 the past several years.

“When coupled with poor 2015 Klamath salmon returns and concern for federally protected winter run, the forecast points to a restricted 2016 fishing season,” said John McManus, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA). “The lower than normal forecast is caused by drought conditions and water management decisions that harmed salmon the last four years in the Central Valley. These have greatly decreased survival of wild salmon eggs and juveniles.”

The numbers were released prior to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual Salmon Fishery Information Meeting scheduled for Wednesday March 2, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Sonoma County Water Agency, 404 Aviation Blvd. in Santa Rosa (95403).

McManus pointed out that the relatively low forecast for 2016 salmon comes as two federal bills in Congress “threaten to take even more of the water needed to keep our salmon runs healthy.”

“The projection for 2016 salmon makes clear the damage done by water diversions and drought the last several years,” said McManus. “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.”

McManus said the PFMC forecast comes as fishery managers begin work on an ocean fishing season in 2016 with adequate protections for low numbers of Sacramento River winter run Chinook salmon, an endangered species under state and federal law, and Klamath salmon.

“A low projected number of adult Klamath River salmon, which is used as a surrogate to protect north coast stocks, could mean further restrictions will occur on salmon fishing north of Point Arena in what’s known as the Fort Bragg cell,” he stated. “This is most likely to affect commercial salmon fishermen who have made the bulk of their catch in this area the last several years.”

North Coast fishermen, like those further south, are bracing for further restrictions this season to allow enough Klamath River salmon to return to the river to spawn. The 2016 Klamath River Fall Chinook potential spawner abundance forecast is 41,211 natural-area adults, according to the PFMC Preseason Report 1. (http://www.pcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Preseason_Report_I_2016_FINAL.pdf.)

“This potential spawner abundance forecast applied to the KRFC control rule results in an allowable exploitation rate of 0.25, which produces, in expectation 30,909 natural-area adult spawners,” according to the PFMC. “Therefore, fisheries impacting KRFC must be crafted to achieve, in expectation, a minimum of 30,909 natural-area adult spawners in 2016.”

The 2016 forecast is based on the number of two-year-old Chinook salmon, called “jacks and jills,” that returned to spawn in 2015. McManus said the 2015 forecast of 652,000 salmon “didn’t come near the post season total of less than 300,000 prompting managers to modify the formula used to forecast this year’s number.”

McManus said one “semi bright spot” in another discouraging outlook is that salmon fishing in 2016 should be a “little bit better” than it was last year due to the extra trucking that occurred in 2014 following a campaign by GGSA to avert drought disaster. “Salmon numbers could creep up a little more in 2017 due to the 100 percent trucking of juvenile hatchery fish at GGSA’s urging in 2015,” he noted.

According to McManus, the trucking of 100 percent of the fall Chinook salmon from the CDFW’s Feather River, Nimbus and the Mokelumne River fish hatcheries and the federal Coleman Hatchery to the estuary in 2015 and all of the smolts from the state hatcheries and 8 million smolts from Coleman in 2014 could serve as a “bridge”in the fishery between the drought years and 2017 and 2018.

He also said an additional two million hatchery fish produced after a GGSA campaign with state officials and support from the Commercial Salmon Stamp committee will be released in the next several months and are expected to add to the 2018 fishery.

“We’d almost certainly be looking at a fishing closure in 2016 but for the work of GGSA that got more hatchery fish trucked to safe release sites starting in 2014,” said GGSA founder and treasurer Victor Gonella. “The trucking made the difference in survival for many of the fish now out in the ocean. The forecast isn’t great, but it should allow for a responsible fishing season while leaving enough fish to reproduce this year.”

“Commercial salmon fishermen are coming off a very poor 2015 fishing season followed by a shutdown of the crab fishery, which most rely on to make ends meet,” added McManus. “Prospects of another poor commercial salmon season is causing concern in harbors and ports from Morro Bay all the way up into Oregon where 60 percent of the ocean salmon catch are Central Valley salmon.”

California’s salmon industry is currently valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity and jobs again in Oregon, according to GGSA.

For more information about the Golden Gate Salmon Association, go to: www.goldengatesalmonassociation.org

Tomorrow’s Ocean Salmon Information Meeting in Santa Rosa marks the beginning of a two-month long public process used to establish annual sport and commercial ocean salmon seasons. A list of additional meetings and other opportunities for public comment is available on CDFW’s ocean salmon webpage,  https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/fishing/ocean/regulations/salmon/preseason

The meeting comes at a critical time for salmon, crab and other fisheries. Legislators, members of commercial fishing families, fishing group representatives and Brown administration officials testified about the dire situation that the salmon and crab fishery is in during the 43rd Annual Zeke Grader Fisheries Forum of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture held at the State Capitol in Sacramento on February 11.

“This forum works, but the fishermen are not,” said Senator Mike McGuire, Chair of the Committee, in his opening comments. “The salmon and crab fisheries are threatened by a historic crisis. We’re facing a fishery disaster that will impact many families.”

In 2008 and 2009, the Sacramento River fall Chinook population plunged to a record low level, prompting the closure of the ocean and river recreational and commercial fishing seasons. While the state and federal governments blamed the crash on ocean conditions, leaders of fishing organizations, environmental groups and Indian Tribes pointed to increased water exports out of the Delta and declining water quality as major factors in the decline. For more information, read my Sacramento and News Review article published in 2008:  https://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/content?oid=667876

For wild salmon populations to rebound on the Sacramento system, fish advocates say action is needed to get the salmon above the major dams so that the fish can spawn in the many miles of river and tributaries that they did before Shasta and other rim dams were built.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe has submitted a McCloud River Salmon Restoration plan that should be included as the preferred alternative for any pilot fish passage project. The Tribe has proposed a volitional fish passage alternative and that native McCloud watershed salmon that are in New Zealand be utilized for the project. (https://fishsniffer.com/index.php/2016/02/24/support-the-winnemum-wintu-tribes-mccloud-river-restoration-plan/)

“In order to ensure survival of the winter-run Chinook Salmon this proposal needs to be taken seriously and the federal agencies with decision making power should fully assess alternatives that have a potential for true success, instead of short term non-effective proposals that over time will prove to be a death knell to winter-run Chinook Salmon,” according to a letter sent to the Bureau of Reclamation by the Tribe and its allies.

As California’s salmon fisheries are hammered by poor management of Central Valley reservoirs and the continuing export of water from the Delta during the drought, Governor Jerry Brown continues to promote his California Water Fix to build the Delta Tunnels. The construction of the tunnels would hasten the extinction of Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon, as well as imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Klamath and Trinity rivers.