In summary

The salmon population crash of 2008 felt like an anomaly in an otherwise productive fishery in California. Fifteen years later, the West Coast is right back where it started. Have we learned nothing in 15 years?

Guest Commentary written by

Sarah Bates

Sarah Bates

Sarah Bates fishes commercially from San Francisco. She works with other fishing advocates to protect ecosystems, marine resources and public access.

Fishery managers announced this week that salmon fishing in California and most of Oregon is completely closed this year. No weekend trips on the river, no local salmon on the barbecue, no opportunity to see your kid reel in a fish.

I fish salmon commercially from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge from my boat, where Chinook have passed for millions of years on their journey from the ocean, through the bay and Delta, up the Sacramento River.

There is communal anticipation before the first trip of the summer, checking anchor winches and hydraulic hoses, safety equipment, leaders, weather reports. Boats are freshly painted and deck tanks for holding fish are installed.

Not this year – this year feels like a funeral.

Salmon and Dungeness crab are the backbone of the San Francisco fishing fleet. Other fisheries like black cod, shrimp, halibut, rockfish, anchovies and herring contribute, but salmon and crab pay the bills and keep us working year-round. Without our commercial and recreational salmon seasons, every fishing business in California will struggle to support our families this year – every captain, deckhand, fuel dock, buyer, processor, gear store, charter operation and marina involved in this $1.4 billion industry.

Fishing is inherently unpredictable – good years, bad years, the excitement of big fish, the anxiety of rough weather. I knew salmon populations had fluctuated from under 100,000 to millions over the last century. What no one expected was the complete closures of ocean salmon fishing in 2008 and 2009.

I was new to commercial fishing then, but I remember the shock from generational fishermen. I remember the hollowing out of our fleet and port infrastructure, the lost businesses and financial desperation in coastal communities. It was devastating, but followed by a decade of robust salmon fishing. The crash of 2008 felt like an anomaly in an otherwise productive fishery.

Fifteen years later, we are right back where we started. Have we learned nothing in 15 years? 

Unfortunately, we repeated many of the same water policy mistakes. We are shocked at the low returns to the Sacramento basin in 2022 (62,000 adults), but we shouldn’t be surprised. Fish we expected last fall (predicted 198,000) hatched out of eggs deposited in the gravel in fall 2019, when plenty of fish (164,000 adults) returned to spawn.

Sadly, California was in the midst of another drought and every water management decision favored powerful agricultural interests over salmon.

Low river flows in fall 2019 dewatered many of the redds, or nests (16%); those eggs never hatched. Spring 2020 was very dry and untimely releases from the Shasta Dam resulted in high water temperatures (over 60 degrees) by May, leaving egg-to-fry survival at roughly 6%. Any surviving juveniles faced low water flows, unable to carry them to the ocean, making through-delta survival below 5%.

Every stage of the life cycle was impacted by warm water and low flows. 

Even worse, we may see similar returns this fall. Fish that should return in 2023 faced similarly terrible river conditions during their life cycle. We should not be surprised by disappointing returns next year if California’s river systems are no longer a suitable breeding habitat for our iconic Chinook salmon.

Hope is not lost, however. The state experienced record rainfall this winter. Every fish that comes out of the gravel and hatcheries this spring has a good chance of making it to the ocean. In wet years, high water flow in the river pushes juveniles out and survival increases tenfold. Those fish will be adults in the ocean in 2025.

They say tragedy comes in threes, but we can’t survive a third tragedy like this. Our coastal communities, salmon populations and ecosystems deserve better. This should be an opportunity to make changes and ensure this tragedy doesn’t occur again in 14 years. 

California needs serious change in water management. We need our governor, Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state Department of Water Resources to ensure sufficient flows of cold water through our river ecosystems. We need solutions that don’t frame the problem as farms versus fish but strike a balance between both land and ocean-based food resources.

A council of West Coast fishery managers canceled the salmon fishing season on Thursday for the first time since 2009, dealing a devastating blow to a billion-dollar industry. State leaders say the decision is a painful but necessary one to sustain salmon populations threatened by extreme heat and drought, and questionable land and water management practices.

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