In summary

Salmon population forecasts are down for this year, prompting fishery managers to cancel the fishing season. The decision is unfortunate but necessary, state leaders say, and part of several actions being taken to restore the population.

Guest Commentary written by

Charlton H. Bonham

Charlton H. Bonham

Charlton H. Bonham is the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Every year a remarkable fish swims through California’s rivers into the Pacific Ocean and then returns to start again for a new generation.

Salmon are a cornerstone of religions, creation stories, culture, health and subsistence of Indigenous peoples.

Forest ecosystems depend on salmon to nourish their roots. Hardworking people eke out a living catching them for delicious meals.

California needs salmon to thrive. 

Historically, salmon populations returning to California rivers were estimated to be in the millions, annually. Those numbers have diminished since the 1950s. Each reason traces to humans – how we use and manage land and water, and built our infrastructure over decades, now with an overlay of extreme climate disruption, which traces to humans, too.

This year, after almost 10 years of drought with episodic swings of rain, dry, snow and repeat, salmon are not doing well. For millions of years, Pacific salmon have endured global-scale climate variabilities, yet they persisted. Recovery is built into their DNA. This fuels the state’s engagement with local communities, tribal communities, commercial and recreational anglers, industries, environmental and conservation organizations, federal agencies, landowners, farmers and ranchers. 

These leaders are doing a lot to bring healthy salmon back, but more must happen to make a difference. What is simple, in theory, is harder in practice.

Of course, water management is part of the salmon strategy, but there is more to the story. Salmon need access to cold, clean water at higher elevations than hotter valley floors. In the Central Valley, a series of big rim dams block access to 90% of historical salmon spawning and rearing habitat.

They need cold water in rivers at key times of the year. Salmon need us as partners to restore landscapes and connect floodplains to rivers once again. Young salmon on floodplains can eat more food and grow bigger, increasing the chance of their return home three years later. Salmon need us to restore places like the Klamath River, Butte and Battle creeks, the McCloud River, and along certain coastal stream ecosystems so future populations can rely upon restored long-term strongholds.

California populations of salmon fluctuate. This year, forecast numbers are down, and it is likely that there will be no commercial or recreational salmon fishing in 2023. On the commercial side, Gov. Gavin Newsom requested disaster relief for our communities from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife cares deeply about commercial, recreational and Tribal needs and communities for salmon fishing. We know this will be a painful period. 

Climate disruption is causing strings of dry years and hotter temperatures, shrinking salmon habitat and eliminating the space for them to rebound. Still, the data shows rebounds are likely. Following a drought sequence, the 2016-2017 Sacramento and San Joaquin numbers were less than 135,000 returning fall-run Chinook. Three years later, after rains, it was over 200,000. Similar rebounds happened after 2010 had above average rainfall. Salmon returns three years later more than doubled from 163,000 to 448,000.

We believe salmon returning three years from today will benefit from this year’s rain and snow.

California is taking action. The largest river restoration project in American history is underway to remove four dams on the Klamath River that will improve river health for salmon. On the McCloud River, we made great strides last summer to return endangered winter-run Chinook eggs upstream of Shasta Reservoir for the first time since the Shasta Dam was constructed in the 1940s. In both the Klamath and McCloud we are building and embracing partnerships with Indigenous communities. Last summer, we also moved threatened spring-run Chinook to Clear Creek and returned adult winter-run Chinook to the North Fork of Battle Creek for the first time in more than 110 years.

More than $84 million has been invested to modernize hatchery infrastructure and improve the production and distribution of fish. We’ve transported over 19 million hatchery-raised juvenile fall run Chinook to the San Pablo and San Francisco bays and seaside net pens to increase their migration chances. In the last month, the state approved about $75 million for projects that safeguard critical habitat, climate refugia, wildlife corridors and wetlands restoration, and will commit hundreds of millions more to protect salmon and ensure they can return to their native spawning grounds. 

There is a way through this. There is a way to save salmon and other important and iconic species in California, and state leaders are committed to this work.

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. Commercial anglers argue that this may be shocking but was not unexpected, blaming poor land and water management that has long favored other interests.

more commentary on salmon fishing shutdown

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