California’s fall Chinook salmon run in the Sacramento River has been closed for the first time since the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and the fish is on the verge of disappearing completely unless some harsh realities are faced.
The number of adult salmon returning in 2022 has plummeted dramatically since 2002, with only about 61,000 returning last year. This is half of the minimum number required by federal law and represents one of the lowest returns on record since 1975.
Over the last eight years, the state and federal governments have failed to meet the minimum escapement (or return) of 122,000 adult salmon returning to the Sacramento Valley six times. Additionally, the Sacramento conservation objective has not been revised since 1984, despite the removal of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam in 2011, which should have prompted a revision.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) is responsible for determining salmon fishing seasons and has been monitoring the Chinook salmon returns to the Sacramento River. These adult fish are returning after their first trip to the ocean three years ago. However, California experienced an intense drought during that time, which either killed the salmon eggs due to high river temperatures or left some rivers completely dry.
This drought in 2019 significantly impacted last year's salmon returns. Although drought is a major factor, it is not the only one. Development and dam construction reduce available habitats, while agriculture and timber operations harm water quality. Additionally, California's water management is subpar and requires improvement, particularly in light of increased runoff from record snowfall filling reservoirs.
To address these challenges, better management decisions and more equitable reservoir release schedules are necessary to create favorable conditions for returning Chinook and ensure the survival of fertilized eggs.
Another solution is hatcheries.
Another potential solution is the use of hatcheries. While there is strong opposition to hatchery-raised salmon, critics often focus on the distinction between natural spawning and hatchery fish. These critics aim to save natural spawning fish by addressing water use in agriculture and power industries, which is commendable in the long term. However, the immediate issue of declining salmon populations must also be addressed.
Hatchery-raised Chinook salmon come from natural spawning stock and share the same DNA as their wild counterparts. They have been used in salmon restoration efforts across the Pacific for years. To counter the immense losses of natural spawning stocks, it is necessary to raise and release more hatchery fish and consider constructing new hatcheries.
We are on the verge of another salmon fishery collapse, similar to the one in 2009, which caused significant economic losses and job losses to the amount of $2 billion, forcing 1,200 fishing boats to stay moored and causing as many as 23,000 people to lose their jobs. It is essential to act quickly, as we cannot afford to wait for lengthy litigation to resolve the issue. If there are no fish, there is no fishing industry.
With climate conditions ever changing, severe droughts, higher temperatures, and more devastating wildfires, the demand on our limited water resources is increasing. Immediate action is required to address these challenges and protect the Chinook salmon population.
It’s common sense. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for years or decades of litigation to play out. If there are no fish, there is no fishing.
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As sportsmen and women, we need to support immediate, concrete solutions that will save our salmon now, so we have something to build on for the future.
Let the California Division of Fish and Wildlife, Game Commission, Bureau of Reclamation and Local, State, and Federal officials know that we can’t afford to repeat this history.
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