California wild salmon harvest continues to dwindle with drought

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Massive die-off casts shadow over future of California wild salmon

It’s still a little too early to tell for sure, but the news on the California wild salmon front is not good. A combination of low water levels in streams because of the drought and high summer temperatures resulted in a massive die-off of young salmon in Northern California.

This week the California Department of Fish and Game, in cooperation with its federal counterparts, will begin releasing young hatchery trout into tributaries of the Sacramento River. That’s something that happens almost every year, but this time the number of young salmon being released is three times the average.

More than 600,000 Chinook salmon fry are being released below Keswick Dam on the Sacramento River after biologists say warm water killed 95% of the existing salmon eggs this summer.

“We have never seen anything like this,” says Jordan Traverso of the Department of Fish and Game. “We’ve been experiencing bad years because of the drought, so we were prepared. In this particular instance, without hatchery production, there would be very, very few naturally spawned winter-run salmon in 2017.”

Salmon are born in freshwater streams and rivers, then migrate to the ocean to fatten up before returning to those streams. They're usually caught commercially just offshore from the rivers in which they were born. The salmon that fishermen will be catching this summer were babies three years ago, when the drought was reaching its worst. Another spawning disaster happened last year.

California salmon have had a rough several years. Long a staple fishery, the number of fish caught plummeted because of a devil’s brew of issues including water allocation, drought and ocean conditions that reduced the amount of krill — similar to baby shrimp — that the salmon feed on.

The catch, which peaked at around 7 million pounds in 2003, dropped to a little more than 1 million in 2006 and for all intents and purposes vanished entirely from 2008 to 2010.

There have been hopeful signs recently — the 2013 catch (the most recent for which there are statistics) had rebounded to more than 4 million pounds — but the continuing effects of the drought have fisheries experts pessimistic, if we don’t get rain.

“It would be really great if we saw a whole bunch of rain leading to a whole bunch of water leading to full rivers,” says Traverso. “But for the future, particularly if drought persists, we might have to have more of this type of thing.”

Before an accurate prediction of this year’s catch can be made, marine biologists and fisheries scientists will do an assessment of how many salmon are gathering offshore. That process will begin in February and the results should be formally announced in April.

“With regard to the salmon fishery both this year and in future years, it is really too early to say,” emailed Michael O’Farrell, a research fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, which will be helping on the survey.

“The drought effects on salmon populations contributing to fisheries this year are being looked at carefully, but that assessment is not done yet.”

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