State and federal fishery scientists speaking at the annual salmon informational meeting held in Santa Rosa on Thursday, February 26, shared encouraging news for sport and commercial anglers for the upcoming 2015 ocean salmon season, in spite of the continuing drought in California.
Abundance forecasts, developed in modeling based on the 2014 returns of salmon to the rivers in 2014, particularly the two-year-old "jacks" and "jills," indicate there are 652,000 adult Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon and 423,800 adults from the Klamath River fall run in the ocean this year. That's a total of 1,075,800 salmon.
Fish from these runs comprise the vast majority of salmon taken in California’s ocean and inland fisheries.
These forecasts, surprising many anglers at the meeting since they were higher than last year, will be used over the next few months by fishery managers to set sport and commercial fishing season dates, commercial quotas, and size and bag limits.
“The forecasts are encouraging and suggest that California fisheries may see salmon seasons in 2015 that have increased opportunities over last year,” said Melodie Palmer-Zwahlen, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Palmer-Zwahlen noted that Chinook salmon harvested in ocean fisheries in 2015 hatched 2-4 years ago and, as a result, have not been highly impacted by California’s drought.
Next year is a different story, though. "Starting next year, it is anticipated that future ocean salmon fishing opportunities may be impacted by the ongoing drought," she stated.
Dr. Michael O'Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed that "abundance forecast is relatively large" for Sacramento River fall Chinooks in 2015. There are two constraining factors on the fishery - the targeted fall Chinook "escapement" rate - the number of fish returning to the Central Valley rivers to spawn - and the allowable impact on winter Chinook.
First, the fishery must target an escapement rate of at least 195,596 fish. If the 2014 regulations were in place this year, the preliminary escapement prediction would be 337,602 salmon, well above the spawning escapement target, according to O'Farrell.
Second, the maximum allowable age-3 impact rate on winter Chinook salmon is 19 percent. If the 2014 regulations were in place this year, the maximum allowable age-3 impact rate would be 15.2 percent. "This is likely to constrain the fisheries south of Point Arena," O'Farrell noted.
While the Sacramento River fall run Chinook returns were promising, the winter and spring Chinook runs, both listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, declined from the previous year, due to the systematic mismanagement of Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs by the Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources during 2013 and 2014, record drought years.
The winter run return was only 3,015 fish, including 2,688 adults and 327 jacks. By contrast, the winter Chinook return was 117,000 in 1969.
A total of only 9,498 spring Chinook, once the most numerous salmon run in the Central Valley system, returned to the Sacramento and its tributaries. This number included 2,825 fish, including 2,163 adults and 222 jacks, from the Feather River Fish Hatchery.
Season dates and other regulations will be developed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) and California Fish and Game Commission over the next few months. Thursday's meeting was a key first step in establishing coastal salmon fishing seasons and regulations for this year that are expected to be finalized and announced by the PFMC and the California Fish and Game Commission in April. Pending these decisions, the 2015 recreational salmon season is on track to open in most of California on Saturday, April 4.
Charter boat captains and recreational anglers attending the meeting were encouraged by the information presented by state and federal biologists. Rick Powers, Captain of the New Sea Angler in Bodega Bay, and Roger Thomas, Captain of the Salty Lady in Sausalito, both supported an ocean salmon season similar to the 2014 season while urging the fishery managers to consider reducing the size limit from 24 inches to 20 inches in the San Francisco Management Zone for as much time as possible to reduce fish mortality.
Coastside Fishing Club President and Science Director Dan Wolford, a voting member of the PFMC, said, "When it came to salmon projections for the state and anticipated ocean fishing opportunities during 2015, the mood at the meeting could be best described as cautiously optimistic. About 212,000 adult salmon returned to spawn in California’s Sacramento River and tributaries in 2014 — well above the 180,000 escapement objective previously set by fishery managers."
Wolford said another positive note was the solid number of returning two-year old fish, commonly referred to as "jacks" and "jills." Included in the overall returns for 2014 were 25,359 jacks — about 25 percent more than returned in 2013. Since the majority of these sub-adult salmon tend to stay out in the ocean for another year before returning, this is another positive sign for ocean salmon numbers and solid fishing opportunities in 2015.
Last year, scientists estimated an abundance of 554,932 adult Sacramento River salmon. Initial estimates for 2015 put the forecasted number of adults higher than last year, at 652,000.
"The 2014 returns are a pleasant surprise and point to the success of the extraordinary efforts of the Department to truck juvenile hatchery fish around the deadly conditions encountered in the rivers and bay-delta system," Wolford observed.
Wolford said returning adult salmon numbers on the Klamath River were also stronger in 2014 than in the previous year — with the 95,330 natural adult spawners more than doubling the established minimum of 40,700 fish. An additional 31,000 adult salmon also returned to the Klamath Basin hatcheries.
“We face many challenges in California, not the least of which is our continuing drought," said Wolford. "Still, the positive salmon return numbers from 2014 and the forecast for the coming season gives us reason to be hopeful. The PFMC will weigh these projections and take into account a wide range of considerations as it develops regulations that will ultimately decide when, where and how anglers can fish for salmon in the state."
Wolford was featured on a panel with Coastside Director Marc Gorelnik, who serves on the PFMC Salmon Advisory Subpanel, the body charged with developing season options for adoption, and other members of the PFMC and its advisory panels. Fishermen who want to stay on top of developing news and regulations can visit the Coastside Fishing Club website at www.CoastsideFishingClub.com.
Dick Pool, Secretary of the Golden Gate Salmon Association and Administrator of water4fish.org, also said he is encouraged by the promising salmon numbers released by state and federal fishery scientists, but emphasized to need to take action to restore wild spawners to the Sacramento River system.
"I am pleasantly surprised that the outlook for this salmon season is better than I thought it would be," said Pool. "The 2014 returns were decent and I'm hopeful that recreational and commercial fishermen can have a reasonably good salmon season in 2015. At the same time, I think we are all aware of the heavy impact the drought will have on the 2016 to 2017 seasons. I fear the worst. We could even see another industry shut down."
"I've been studying the impact that high temperatures and stranding had on the salmon in the rivers during the drought. There is big trouble ahead. Lethal river temperatures and the stranding of salmon eggs when flows were cut after the fish spawned took a heavy toll in 2013 and 2014. Many millions of eggs failed to survive. We can expect the runs will therefore plummet in 2016 and 2017 when the adults do not return. Worst of all, it looks like the drought is continuing into 2015," he noted.
"The most important thing now is to get busy making serious investments to get the wild spawners back. It's clear that in the drought we have lost the majority of the wild fish. It will be very difficult to bring these fish back. Fortunately, there are a number of good habitat projects that can help if we move quickly. Plus, most of the hatchery fish survived. We will now have to lean on the hatcheries to help bring back the wild stocks. One promising technology is to inject selected surplus hatchery eggs into the gravel in the wild," concluded Pool.
For more information on the salmon season setting process or general ocean salmon fishing information, please visit the Ocean Salmon Project website atwww.dfg.ca.gov/marine/oceansalmon.asp, or call the salmon fishing hotline at (707) 576-3429.