California In-River Salmon Sport Fisheries Closed for Second Year Due to Dramatic Declines

By Dan Bacher | 

AMERICAN CANYON, Calif. – On May 15, the California Fish and Game Commission unanimously adopted emergency regulations for Chinook salmon fishing closures in the Central Valley and Klamath River Basins due to  dramatic population declines.

According to the CDFW: “As part of its annual process for adjusting seasons and bag limits, the Commission voted to:

  • Prohibit the take and possession of Chinook salmon in the Sacramento, American, Feather and Mokelumne rivers and their tributaries.
  • Prohibit the take and possession of fall-run Chinook salmon in the Klamath and Trinity rivers and their tributaries.
  • Adopt emergency closures of the spring Chinook salmon sport fishing seasons on the Klamath and Trinity rivers and their tributaries.”

The regulations are expected to take effect no later than July 1, 2024, following approval by the state Office of Administrative Law.

“The in-river closures align with the recommended closure of both commercial and recreational ocean salmon fisheries off the California coast by the Pacific Fishery Management Council due to continued low abundance,” according to the CDFW. “Federal fisheries managers have since enacted a full closure of ocean salmon seasons in California. California’s ocean salmon sport fishing seasons and regulations automatically conform to federal regulations unless the Commission acts otherwise.”

A Staff Summary for the May 15, 2024 Fish and Game Commission meeting cited numerous causes for the plummeting salmon numbers, including ongoing issues associated with “drought and climate disruption” along with “severe wildfires and associated impacts to spawning and rearing habitat, harmful algal blooms, and ocean forage shifts.” 

However, Scott Artis, Executive Director of the Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA), noted that the CDFW failed to mention the top cause behind the collapse — a “horrendous water policy.” 

“We can’t begin to solve the salmon crisis plaguing all of California’s marine and inland waters, the entire commercial and recreational fishing industry, and many coastal and river towns and communities if the Governor simply fails to admit the main cause, which is a horrendous water policy that green lights unsustainable water diversions out of our salmon rivers,” said Artis in a statement.

Artis noted that the latest closure follows the complete 2023 salmon fishing season shutdown that devastated the commercial and recreational salmon industry, and marks the fourth year in California’s history that salmon fishing has been closed. Salmon fishing was previously closed in 2008 and 2009.

He also said fishery managers forecasted low adult Sacramento Valley fall-run Chinook salmon abundance in the ocean off the West Coast in February. Like 2023, this year’s decision was made due to low ocean abundance estimates of adult and two-year-old jack salmon that survived the hostile conditions they have encountered in Central Valley rivers in recent years.

“The 2023 and 2024 salmon shutdowns did not come out of the blue. In the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021, baby salmon that are returning this year faced multiple threats,” said Artis.

“First, the state failed to require adequate temperature protection for salmon eggs. As a result, lethal hot water, caused by excessive and unsustainable agricultural water deliveries earlier in the year to largely support export nut crops, killed incubating salmon eggs,” Artis stated.

“Second, Governor Newsom has shut down the State Water Board effort to update Bay-Delta standards, including river flow standards to protect out-migrating salmon. As a result, baby salmon did not survive their journey out of the Central Valley to the ocean. And finally, in 2021, Governor Newsom waived the already poor salmon standards that were in place in order to allow additional pumping. As a result, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded that 99.7% of winter-run Chinook salmon eggs and juveniles were killed before they reached the Delta,” added Artis.

“Families, businesses, salmon and our rivers and estuaries are hurting,” continued Artis. “Instead of developing solutions that can work for everyone and the environment, the Governor is pushing forward with the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir projects. These projects are the ultimate fisherman’s nightmare. Because why bother with pesky things like sustainable ecosystems when you can just reduce river flows to a trickle and heat the water enough to kill salmon eggs? Here’s to the Governor, turning California’s rivers into ghost towns for salmon and fishermen and women alike.”

A healthy California salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity and 23,000 jobs annually to the state in a normal season and contributes millions of dollars more to the economy and supports thousands of jobs in Oregon. Salmon workers benefiting from Central Valley salmon stretch from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon. This includes commercial fishermen and women, recreational fishermen and women (fresh and salt water), fish processors, marinas, coastal and river communities, equipment manufacturers, the hotel and food industry, Tribes, and many others.

California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River system supports four distinct Chinook salmon runs: fall, late-fall, winter and spring. The winter- and spring-runs have seen periods of alarmingly low numbers and are designated as endangered and threatened, respectively, under the Endangered Species Act. The fall-run has been the only commercially and recreationally fishable stock, prior to recent and current season closures. The late-fall run has been eliminated from most of its native spawning habitat. All four Chinook salmon runs are dependent upon cold water flows and releases from reservoirs for migration and spawning. 

Background: CA salmon, Delta fish populations are in worst-ever crisis as pumps keep exporting water to Big Ag

Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations are in their worst-ever crisis ever as California Governor Newsom forges ahead with the salmon-killing Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir projects and the Big Ag voluntary agreements while fish populations move closer and closer to extinction.

California salmon fishing was closed in 2023 and will be closed this year also. The 2024 stock abundance forecast for Sacramento River Fall Chinook, often the most abundant stock in the ocean fishery, is only 213,600 adults. The return to Coleman Fish Hatchery was an absolute disaster. Meanwhile, abundance of Klamath River Fall Chinook is forecast at 180,700 adults.  

Endangered Sacramento River spring and winter-run Chinook also continue their march towards extinction. The spawning escapement of Sacramento River Spring Chinooks (SRSC) in 2023 totaled 1,479 fish (jacks and adults), with an estimated return of 106 to upper Sacramento River tributaries and the remaining 1,391 fish returning to the Feather River Hatchery:

The return to Butte Creek of just 100 fish was the lowest ever. In 2021, an estimated 19,773 out of the more than 21,580 fish total that returned to spawn in the Butte County stream perished before spawning.

Nor did the winter run, listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Act, do well. Spawner escapement of endangered Sacramento River Winter Chinook (SRWC) in 2023 was estimated to be 2,447 adults and 54 jacks, according to PFMC data.

A group of us, including the late conservationist and Fish Sniffer magazine publisher Hal Bonslett, successfully pushed the state and federal governments to list the winter run under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts starting in 1990-91 because we were so alarmed that the fish population had crashed to 2,000 fish.

Then in 1992 the run declined to less than 200 fish. Even after Shasta Dam was built, the winter run escapement to the Sacramento River was 117,000 in 1969!

Now we are back to approximately the same low number of winter-run Chinooks that spurred us to push for the listing of the fish as endangered under state and federal law over 30 years ago.  

The State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) Delta “death pumps” have been the biggest killers of salmon, steelhead, Sacramento splittail and other fish species in California for many decades, as I have documented in hundreds of articles in an array of publications.

In the latest episode in this outrageous saga, a coalition of fishing and conservation groups, including the Golden Gate Salmon Association, San Francisco Baykeeper and Bay Institute, urged the state and federal water agencies to “take immediate action” to stop the unauthorized killing of thousands of Chinook Salmon and Steelhead at the State and Federal water export pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta:

Both winter-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Central Valley winter-run Chinook Salmon is also protected under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

The coalition reported that this is the second time in 2024 the coalition has responded to an increase in killing of legally protected fish at the pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project (Projects or Water Projects).

While the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has called for significant reductions in the Projects’ Delta water pumping, the California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the federal Bureau of Reclamation that own and operate the Projects ignored these recommendations and continued to export water at rates that killed thousands of imperiled fishes, the groups said.

“Indeed, over the past week, DWR and Reclamation further increased pumping – as a result, significantly increasing take of winter-run Chinook Salmon at the pumps,” the groups said in a statement. “As a result, the Water Projects have exceeded the legal limits for killing both Central Valley Steelhead and winter-run Chinook Salmon established under the ESA by NMFS.”

State Water Project pumping accounts for 80% of the water exported from the Delta at this time, according to the groups.

The annual ESA take limit for winter-run Chinook Salmon is 1,776 fish. As of March 25, 2024, an estimated 3,030winter-run had been killed at the pumps – not counting the much larger number of fish that likely died after being drawn by pumping into inhospitable parts of the Delta, the groups said.

Since December 1, 2023, an estimated 2,919 naturally spawned Central Valley Steelhead have also been killed by the Water Projects. The maximum allowable ESA Steelhead take is 1,571 as a three-year rolling average or 2,760 in any single year. The numbers show that the Water Projects are in violation of both limits.

Now we turn to Delta Smelt. Unfortunately, the mainstream media, for the most part, either refuses to report on the Delta smelt or report inaccurately on the Delta Smelt when it does report. This is from an article in the LA Times in February 2024: “Recent surveys have found decreasing numbers of Delta smelt in the wild.”

Are you kidding? Actually, for the sixth year in a row, ZERO Delta Smelt were collected in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall Midwater Trawl (FMWT) Survey in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from September through December 2023.

Once the most abundant species in the entire estuary, the Delta Smelt has declined to the point that it has become functionally extinct in the wild. The 2 to 3 inch fish, found only in the Delta, is an “indicator species” that shows the relative health of the San Francisco Bay/Delta ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the other pelagic species collected in the survey — striped bass, Longfin Smelt, Sacramento Splittail and threadfin shad — continued their dramatic decline since 1967 when the State Water Project went into effect. Only the American shad shows a less precipitous decline.

Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95%, respectively, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The graphs in the CDFW memo graphically illustrate how dramatic the declines in fish populations have been over the years:…  

Photo courtesy of Golden State Salmon Association (GSSA).

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