Anglers can look forward to another solid recreational salmon fishing season on the ocean this year, based on data presented at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual salmon information meeting in Santa Rosa on February 27.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has forecasted 379,632 adult Sacramento River Fall Chinook (SRFC) salmon are now in the ocean off the West Coast, compared to 223,854 a year ago at this time. The number is derived from the number of jacks (two-year-olds), 41,184, that returned to the Sacramento River and its tributaries in 2018.
This forecast, along with data from the Klamath and Trinity rivers, other Central Valley rivers and coastal rivers, will be used by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) to set times and areas open to both sport and commercial ocean salmon fishing this year.
“The ocean salmon fishery targets an escapement of at least 122,000 (67.9% exploitation rate),” said Dr. Michael O’Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service at the meeting. “If the 2018 regulations were in place, there is a preliminary escapement prediction of 230,500.”
Another factor impacting the ocean fishery is the constraints used to protect Sacramento winter Chinook salmon, a fish that the late Hal Bonslett, the founder and publisher of the Fish Sniffer magazine, and I spent many hours 30 years ago fighting to protect under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.
The winter Chinook run shows an abundance forecast of 1,924, larger than 2018, although well below historical levels. Remember that in 1969 over 117,000 winter run Chinook returned to the Sacramento River,
The maximum allowable age-3 impact rate for winter chinooks on the ocean is 15.7%. If the 2018 regulations were in place at this time, it would show a preliminary prediction of 9.1%. “This is likely to constrain 2019 fisheries south of Point Arena ,” said O’Farrell.
The Klamath River Fall Chinook (KRFC) abundance forecast is also promising. The age 3 forecast is 167,504, the age 4 forecast is 106,119 and the age 5 forecast is 599, a total of 274,182 adult salmon. That is lower than 2018 forecast, but still an improvement over low forecast numbers seen in recent years, according to the CDFW.
O’Farrell said the potential spawner abundance forecast is 87,893 – and the regulations must target an escapement of at least 40,700, a 53.7 percent exploitation rate.
If the 2018 regulations were in place this year, the forecasted number of natural area adults returning to spawn would be 58.000 fish. That would result in an exploitation rate of 33.2 percent.
O’Farrell said this fish stock could constrain the 2019 fishery south of Cape Falcon, Oregon, as it has done in recent years.
The ocean abundance forecasts “suggest a return to relatively plentiful salmon fishing in 2019 is likely,” explained John McManus, President of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA).
“We are cautiously optimistic that the increase in ocean abundance of SRFC will translate into more fishing opportunity this year,” said CDFW environmental scientist Kandice Morgenstern.
In March and April, Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) officials will use this forecast and other information to set times and areas open to both sport and commercial ocean salmon fishing for 2019, according to McManus.
McManus said the reason for the increase in this year’s salmon forecast is directly linked to the better Central Valley river conditions during the very wet spring of 2017.
“Increased natural runoff from rivers in the Central Valley always boost salmon survival, as measured two years later when the fish return to spawn as adults, said McManus. “We are looking forward to a good salmon fishing season this year.”
“We could see the best season since 2013, which was a really good one,” said Mike Aughney, GGSA director. “Then as now, the good times came two years after really wet winters and springs in the Central Valley. If water managers would leave more water in the rivers during some of the drier years, we’d always have more salmon.”
Since salmon are considered one year old when they leave the Central Valley in the spring, and most return as three year old adults, you can usually count on good fishing two years after lots of rain and snow. Thus, with this year’s rain and snow, 2021 should be a good year also.
The less positive news is that the number of adult salmon that returned to the Sacramento Valley to spawn in 2018 fell short of targets for the fourth year in a row. After three years of missing the target, the National Marine Fisheries Service increased the minimum escapement target from 122,000 to 151,000 fish in 2018.
“They may do the same again this season, which could result in a shortened season or some areas being closed. These decisions will be made over the next month but no matter what, most expect good fishing once the season finally gets under way,” said McManus.
A total of 105,739 hatchery and natural area adult spawners were estimated to have returned to the Sacramento River Basin in 2018, meeting the criteria for “overfished” status in 2018, according to the PFMC.
Fall Chinook returns to Sacramento River hatcheries in 2018 totaled 33,815 adults, and escapement to natural areas was 71,924 adults.
“In spite of the relatively rosy 2019 forecasts, the entire Central Valley is still recovering from the last drought that greatly reduced salmon in various Central Valley tributaries. A few years of good returns to help rebuild the natural spawning stocks is welcome news,” said McManus.
The excessive diversion of Central Valley rivers and massive water exports from the Sacramento-Sacramento River Delta in dry and drought years are two of the primary causes of salmon declines, combined with poor ocean conditions, the blocking of migration to the spawning grounds by dams and habitat destruction.
“Drought could revisit us almost anytime, in fact it’s probably just a matter of when. We need to build and fortify in the good years so we don’t get wiped out again in the bad,” said GGSA secretary Dick Pool. “That’s why GGSA is working overtime to get salmon recovery, habitat improvements, and hatchery improvements on the new governor’s radar.”
One revealing bit of data presented by Barry Miller of the CDFW at the meeting is the contribution of the Mokelumne River to the recreational and commercial ocean salmon fishery in 2018. The Mokelumne, a relatively small river, provided 33 percent of the Central Valley fall Chinooks caught in the recreational fishery and 43 percent of the commercial fishery.
“The advances in releases of salmon, coupled with the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery Manager Bill Smith’s care of the fish, have resulted in big, strong fish that are in really good shape,” concluded McManus. “The Mokelumne Hatchery has apparently discovered some type of magic in their stewardship of salmon.”
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 ocean salmon hotline at (707) 576-3429.