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"When we have a really good fishing year out in the ocean, it's because of two things," McManus says. "We have a good contribution from natural spawning salmon coming out of the Central Valley, and we have a good contribution from the hatcheries."
Following a period of abundance in the late '80s, and then again in the late '90s and early 2000s, California's salmon season was closed in 2008 and 2009, resulting from a population crash that NOAA scientists found was due to a lack of upwelling and the subsequent low production of krill, one of salmon's dietary staples.
"The population has undergone a modest rebound since then, but it still has not reached the abundance that we observed in the late '90s and early 2000s," says Michael O'Farrell, a research fish biologist at the NOAA.
While there has been an increase in small sardines, a potential good sign for salmon, Greg Ambiel, who has been fishing salmon locally for 30 years, is not hedging any bets for this coming season.
"The fish are being killed in the Central Valley before they get a chance to get to the ocean," Ambiel says. "If you follow the money, that's who gets the water. It's simple: just go look at the almond trees in the Central Valley."
Indeed, over the last few years, a fairly drastic shift has occurred, with high-profit almond crops replacing raisin grapes and other less profitable crops in the Central Valley. The problem for salmon is that it takes a gallon of water to produce one almond—which is three times more water than it takes to produce a grape—according to a study published in 2011 at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Water demands for agriculture are a known contributor to an estimated 95 percent loss of salmon's critical rearing ground in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Last month, O'Farrell began the process of calculating 2016 abundance forecasts for both the Sacramento and Klamath rivers and tributaries, based on data that includes the return of fish the previous fall. Each March, he reports the number to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, who then sets the season in April.
"Where we're at right now, we've come out of the very low abundance periods of 2008 and 2009, but we don't know exactly what the returns are for this past year," O'Farrell says. "There are some issues that we are monitoring with regard to the effects of drought and ocean conditions. It's hard to say which way the population's going to go at this point, but we'll have more information on that in a couple of months."
The Central Valley Improvement Act, passed in 1992, ambitiously hoped to double the number of salmon and steelhead trout in the Sacramento River basin over the past 22 years, but it has fallen short. While their goal was to see 86,000 spring-run Chinook salmon spawning in the Central Valley by 2012, the number was only 30,522. Federal officials cited obstacles such as drought, competing demands for water and lack of funding.
But Steve Lindley, leader of the Fisheries Ecology Division at the NOAA, points to wetland-restoration success stories in the Central Valley, in places like Clear Creek and Butte Creek.
"These shallow areas that are nurseries for salmon—those populations have done very well, even during the poor ocean and drought periods," he says, "so it's not a lost cause. But we do really need to address some of these habitat issues, and find a way to operate salmon hatcheries in a way that supports our fisheries without imperiling their long-term liability. We're really keen on working with GGSA and the fishing community and the broader fish and water communities to try to find those kind of solutions."