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Lox and Stocks

The salmon fishing was pretty good this year—drought be damned. The future is less bright

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ON ICE California's ongoing drought is making life difficult for the state's beloved king salmon.
  • ON ICE California's ongoing drought is making life difficult for the state's beloved king salmon.

The California salmon fishing season that ended last week was OK this year, says John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, "but not as good as last year."

In February, the National Marine Fisheries Service said an estimated 650,000 Chinook salmon would leave the Sacramento River for the Pacific Ocean this season—an estimate offered as a portent of good things to come, despite the drought.

But salmon fishing in California, McManus fears, is going to get worse before it gets better—and that's if it ever does improve. This year, he says, salmon anglers working the colder waters to the north tended to fare better. "Southern Oregon was quite good," he says, "the Eureka area, the sport fishery was quite good. Sonoma was OK."

The Marin County coast, he says, "got OK in late September and remained surprisingly strong in October."

The problem for the salmon, however, is the ceaseless drought with its various fallouts. Looking ahead, says McManus, the prospects for a healthy and sustainable salmon fishery are decidedly grim.

McManus describes a "desperate situation for spawning fall run king salmon in the Sacramento Valley this year," because of high water temperature in the Sacramento River and surrounding tributaries.

A successful salmon spawn requires water temperatures to be at 56 degrees. Water temperatures that crank northward as high as 62 degrees mean certain death to an entire generation of fish.

"The adults are up there spawning," says McManus, "but the spawn is all likely to die this year because the rivers are too hot. Come next year, I wouldn't be surprised if there are very few fish coming out of the gravel."

The Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) has pushed the state and federal government on two fronts this year in an attempt to save the California salmon fishery from drought and global warming impacts. But so far neither has taken up the call.

To deal with high water temperatures, McManus called for the state to launch a program that he says has been met with success in Oregon and Alaska.

There, fisheries biologists removed eggs and milt from wild salmon and stored them in a controlled environment until water temperatures returned to an optimal level. Then the eggs were manually inserted into gravel beds—and little fish fry popped out in the spring, just like that.

"I'm quite worried about the next few years ahead," McManus says. "And, yeah, there were and there are interventions that the GGSA has proposed that would make a difference, that would help and assure that we'd have better and more abundant stocks."

California's Department of Fish and Wildlife hasn't explored the intensive egg vesting gambit, but McManus says he's "hopeful that the state might do an experimental study, which is not likely to give us more fish in the ocean in 2017, but could satisfy the state's need to see if this is worth doing at all during drought seasons."

Alaska and Oregon demonstrated the utility of this approach, says McManus, and his organization even sponsored a presentation for state and federal officials on how it would work.

The other plan being promoted by GGSA involves increasing the output at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in Redding, Calif.

The fish hatchery was built by the federal government to mitigate damage to the state's salmon fishery created by the development and operation of the Shasta Dam.

The hatchery is managed by Fish & Wildlife, says McManus, and has capacity to ramp up its output. "We've asked that they consider doing so to compensate for what we expect to be a total or near total loss of the king salmon run this fall."

Eric Larson, fisheries program manager at Fish & Wildlife, says state efforts on behalf of the salmon have rendered those plans unnecessary. Almost all the salmon caught in California ocean waters, he says, come from hatcheries in and around the Sacramento River system—not so in Oregon. And, because of the drought, this year the agency trucked smolts down to net-pen holding facilities in San Fransisco Bay, and released them into the ocean from there, which "negates the interstitial-placement-of-eggs argument," says Larson.

The smolt operation "was a huge project for us," Larson says, adding that "we have a hatchery system here because we don't have a large number of natural fish. We think we got a lot of fish in the ocean this year, and we won't see this decline in hatchery fish in the ocean come two or three years down the road."

Furthermore, he says, the state, is already handcuffed by a lack of available habitat space for inland or returning salmon: "We don't increase production because we are at capacity," Larson says. "We don't have the habitat or the hatchery space for more returns than what we are already doing."

Larson and McManus agree the fishing this year was pretty good. It was a far cry better than the early 2000s, when the state's salmon fishery was shut down cold.

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