California could be salmonless again

In 2002, 800,000 Chinook salmon passed through San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento River to their ancestral spawning grounds in the Upper Sacramento and its tributaries. Those were the "good old days" for party boats out of the Bay, plying the ocean. Limits around with big lugs to 40, even 50 pounds as the rule, not the exception. Same for guides fishing the big river.

The Kenai River may have some bigger Kings, up to 90 lbs. and more. And the Columbia and Fraser Rivers certainly have decent runs, but historically the Chinook salmon run up the Sacramento River has been the largest on the West Coast, and that has meant big business for commercial fishermen, restaurants, party boats in the ocean, guides along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, and sport fishermen, as well as a lot of prime salmon on the table.

In 2007, only 80,000 Chinooks made their final run up the Sacramento River. As a result, the Fall Run of Chinooks, which has always been the biggest, in April, 2008 was declared off-limits to fishermen by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council — no fishing in the ocean or the Sacramento River and tributaries — with only a Winter Run fishery in the river for about a month remaining. Silver salmon fishing had already been banned and sockeyes and pinks don't get down this far south, so in effect there was virtually no salmon fishery in California last year, except for the Klamath River run. And that meant thousands of people out of work and several hundred million dollars in lost income.

According to a meeting between National Marine Fisheries and a coalition of stakeholder groups held last week in Sacramento between National Marine Fisheries and a coalition of stakeholder groups, it's likely that there will be no ocean or fall run salmon fishery this year, also. According to Pro-Troll tackle manufacturer Dick Pool, from Water4Fish, "The primary indicator of catchable salmon in the ocean is the number of 2 year-old jacks that return to the rivers. The jack count in 2008 was at or near an all time low. This means the numbers of mature fish that will return in 2009 will be very low."

Pool is predicting there will be no season this year, but that decision is yet to be made as it rests with the California Fish and Game Commission and National Marine Fisheries. However, it looks like Pool's forecast will be right. On February 18, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that last year only 66,264 natural and hatchery adult fall chinook salmon were estimated to have returned to the Sacramento River basin for spawning.

When the bad news came out last spring, fingers were pointing everywhere to look for reasons for the rapid decline in salmon. Some immediately said it was more example of global warming. Global warming may be a factor in salmon populations, but for such a dramatic decline in five years, it would signal that in five more we should all be frying in triple-digit winters. And beside, the Columbia River and Klamath River runs seem to be doing quite well. (Incidentally, it's in the 30's today on the Coast, with a snow level at 2000' and the road to Tahoe has been blocked most of the day by snow and ice.)

Warming is involved in the sorry state of the Sacramento salmon, but it's not the ocean waters so much as those in the river. It's the summer water temperatures upstream in the Sacramento River and in the tributaries, which NMF says is a major problem. Warmer water, associated with dams, water diversions, and drought conditions for the last several years, is killing off eggs and small fish, killing off 10% of the eggs.

But that's just the beginning. An even bigger factor for the young fish in the Upper Sacramento is decreased water levels, stress passing through dams, and increased predation, which collectively mean that only 20% of the young fish leaving Red Bluff make it to the Delta.

Then when they get to the Delta, pumps, predation and water chemistry kill 65% of the young fish.

According to the report, "Overall, when the Sacramento survival of 20% is combined with the Delta survival of 40%, only 8% of the smolts make it to the West Delta," (which connects with San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay).

You also have to factor in a problem for returning spawners, poaching, which because of the game warden shortage in California has become very significant. In 2007 game wardens cited over 400 people for snagging salmon in and around the state capitol, Sacramento. And the wardens believe they are only able to catch about 10% of the violators as California has the worst per capita wardens of any state or Canadian province.

As a result of the studies reported at the meeting, "NMFS currently concludes jeopardy for all salmon species, green sturgeon, and the southern resident killer whale species." In addition, in the San Joaquin River, a tributary of the Sacramento that once had a salmon run approaching 300,000 fish a year, due to low flows and predation, "endangered steelhead survival out of the San Joaquin is near zero." Without drastic measures, the report finds: "there is no question that several runs are now headed to extinction."

Problems with dams, diversions, water temperatures and poaching, have made the future of Sacramento River salmon heavily tied to hatcheries. This increases costs, but it does result in some control that can be helpful to circumvent the gauntlet of problems salmon face currently in the Sacramento River. One strategy that offers some hope is carrying smolts from the hatcheries in tank trucks to holding pens in San Francisco Bay, thus avoiding contact with the Delta, and its hungry stripers and diversion pumps. And then when the young salmon are ready to be released into the wild, they are released in deeper water offshore, which minimizes feeding frenzies by sea birds and seals.

To be a fisherman is to always cultivate hope. With salmon runs, you always have to think 2-3 years ahead of time. Dick Pool observes wistfully, "We are hoping for a 2010 season based on the 23 million smolts that were trucked around the delta in 2008."

To keep abreast of developments in the California salmon struggle, visit the websites for Water4Fish, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and the National Marine Fisheries Pacific Northwest Division.
A copy of a recent presentation by NMFS to CAL-FED with many graphic charts and graphs describing the salmon situation in California, can also be viewed online.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.