Facing some of the worst salmon fishery numbers in California’s recorded history, a coalition of sport and commercial fishermen’s groups is calling on state regulators to immediately cancel the 2023 fall salmon season.
The request comes two days after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual pre-season salmon informational meeting, where agency personnel delivered a dismal 2023 abundance forecast.
For example, the forecast for fall Chinook on the Klamath River is just 103,793 adults, the second-lowest figure since the current assessment method began more than 25 years ago.
Meanwhile, the projection for Sacramento River fall Chinook — estimated at 169,767 adults — is among the lowest forecasts in the past 15 years. Wildlife managers at Wednesday’s meeting also admitted to errors in their forecast models.
Kenny Priest, a local fisherman and guide, told the Outpost that while losing an entire season would be “devastating” for him and many others, there’s “no doubt” that such a drastic measure is called for this year.
“The writing has been on the wall for quite some time,” Priest said.
As the CDFW explains, salmon population numbers are episodic, reflecting what’s typically a three-year life cycle from when salmon eggs hatch to adults returning from the ocean to the rivers where they were spawned.
As such, this year’s meager forecast reflects the state’s severe drought conditions in 2020, though it also fits into a much longer pattern of decline, according to CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham.
“This is a decades-long trend, and the past few years of record drought only further stressed our salmon populations,” he said in a news release.
In recent days Gov. Gavin Newsom has faced sharp criticism from fishing and environmental groups (see here and here) for a decision to suspend rules protecting salmon and drastically cut river flows to preserve water in reservoirs for agricultural interests in the San Joaquin Valley.
The last time the state closed the fishery was in 2009. If it happens again this year it will have an economic impact on the North Coast, though local fishermen say the low forecast spells trouble either way.
“The worst thing that could happen for all of us would be to get, like, five days of fishing,” said Tim Klaasen, whose charter boat business, Reel Steel Sportfishing, operates out of Woodley Island in Eureka. Rather than such a short season, Klaasan and others are hoping that a closure could be accompanied by a disaster declaration, bringing state and federal assistance.
“Eureka in the past has always been a salmon port, really, more than anything else, so this [decline] has been quite a shock,” Klaasen said.
Priest noted that the local salmon fishing industry, in both the ocean and the rivers, has a big economic impact on the region, attracting tourists who stay at hotels, eat at local restaurants, purchase gear and visit casinos. But he agreed with Klaasen that the numbers just don’t justify a season this year.
Priest said the press release issued today (and published below) represents a coalition of commercial fishermen, river guides and various other groups, “and we’re all saying, ‘Shut it down — for the good of the salmon.’ This is a united front.”
The recent rainfall and snow accumulation across the state is good news for fish, which Klaasen welcomes.
“We’ve seen with good conditions that fish can rebound quickly, so that’s what we’re hoping for,” he said. As for the closure request, he characterized it this way: “We’re ripping the Band-Aid off all at once here.”
Here’s the press release:
Today, leadership of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association, and the Northern California Guides and Sportsmen’s Association are calling for an immediate closure of the 2023 salmon season and requesting [that] Governor Newsom, the State Legislature, and state agencies seek Federal and State disaster assistance funding for affected ocean and inland commercial operators.
On March 1, 2023, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife held their annual pre-season briefing and reported some of the worst fisheries numbers in the history of the state.
These numbers follow years of drought, poor water management decisions by Federal and State managers, occasional failure to meet hatchery egg mitigation goals, inaccurate season modeling, and the inability of fisheries managers to meet their own mandated escapement goals.
“Unfortunately we have gotten to a point that we have been warning was coming: another collapse of our iconic salmon fisheries,” said George Bradshaw, President of PCFFA.
“The harvest models, escapement goals and model inaccuracies show there is no warranted opportunity to harvest Chinook Salmon in the state of California in 2023. Our organization is asking Federal and State managers to take the required steps to ensure the survival of the resource and close the fishery. We demand we work towards future sustainable solutions so we can once again have robust salmon runs and thriving fisheries. Our coastal communities and generational fisherman deeply rely on the proper management. Therefore this requires our Federal and State leaders lead the effort to secure disaster assistance until we all get through these foreseeable hard times.”
“Inland recreational salmon anglers and salmon fishing guides are the last user group to access the resource every year when salmon return to their natal, spawning grounds and hatcheries,” said James Stone, Executive Director of NCGASA.
“We have seen historic low runs in the Sacramento Valley since 2015, with 75% of the last 8 years falling short of the required conservation objective of 122,000 spawning adult fall run salmon,” Stone continued. “Current salmon management policy and poor water management, without proper hatchery mitigation, has got us to this point of full collapse. Our small rural communities throughout the Delta and upper Sacramento river systems that rely on salmon for food, recreation, sport, and industry have been drastically affected. We need to enact immediate conservation measures and close the fishery in all sectors ocean and inland, coupled with a complete overhaul of our salmon management models and policies that have led to this scenario.”
“After several consecutive years of poor river conditions fishery managers have forecasted near record low salmon returns to the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers,” said Rick Powers, President of GGFA. “With low returns we feel it would be irresponsible to participate in a 2023 season. While we make our living fishing for salmon, we are willing to make a short-term sacrifice to ensure a return of robust salmon populations that our families depend on. Therefore, we suggest that this year’s salmon season be suspended to protect the salmon runs that are vital to California Coastal Communities, and we call for Governor Newsom and state leaders to fight for disaster assistance funding for our communities immediately.”
PCFAA, GGFA, and NCGASA comprise the three largest licensed operators and businesses that rely on the Fall Run Chinook fishery. These three organizations have partnered together on numerous previous meetings with each other and Federal and State fisheries managers seeking changes and improvements to California’s fisheries management, with mixed outcomes. While the communities they represent will be irrevocably harmed by a 2023 closure, they believe there is no other conscionable alternative at this time.
CORRECTION: This post originally referred to the season starting in May, rather than the fall run. It’s fixed now.