Fisheries and wildlife officials are predicting a massive fall chinook salmon run. Spring-winter, not so good.

Fall Chinook to Run High, But Spring-winter Numbers Plummet

Dan Bacher
3/28/11

The National Marine Fisheries Service is already looking ahead to a large salmon run later this year, forecasting an ocean abundance of 729,893 Sacramento fall chinooks. Winter and spring runs, however, continue to decline.

This means a more liberal salmon season off California this year for recreational and commercial fishermen. The recreational salmon fishing season opens on Saturday, April 2, in ocean waters from Horse Mountain in Humboldt County to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) at its meeting in Tacoma, Washington, on March 9, adopted three public review alternatives for the West Coast 2011 recreational and commercial salmon fishing season. The Council will select a final alternative at their next meeting in San Mateo, California, from April 9–14.

Salmon numbers were first released during the DFG’s annual informational salmon fishery meeting in Santa Rosa on March 1, which was packed to the gills with recreational and commercial fishermen who came to hear officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Department of Fish and Game and the PFMC speak.

“The salmon fishery is definitely going in the right direction—we’re more optimistic about the fishery’s recovery than we have been in several years,” said Craig Stone, owner of the Emeryville Sportfishing Center. “Whereas last year recreational anglers were split over whether or not to have a salmon season, I think everybody is behind us having a salmon season this year.”

The 125,300 Sacramento River adult fall chinooks that returned to spawn in 2010 included 43,360 fish that returned to the hatcheries and 89,654 salmon that spawned in Central Valley rivers. The 27,500 jacks included 15,482 hatchery fish and 14,699 river spawners, according to Brent Kornos of the California Department of Fish and Game.

“In both the Upper Sacramento River and San Joaquin River systems, we saw the greatest spawning escapement of both adults and jacks,” stated Kornos.

This is an improvement over the 2009 and 2010 record low years, but still nowhere near normal for the river that has historically been the driver for West Coast salmon fisheries. The 10-year (1997-2006) pre-disaster return averaged roughly 475,000 fish.

A total of 798,770 adult chinooks, including 94,223 hatchery fish and 704,547 natural spawners, returned to the Sacramento River and its tributaries to spawn in 2002.

At the same time, the Sacramento adult winter chinook population, an endangered species, plummeted to only 1,596 fish in 2010, according to Kornos.

The winter run population, through a number of measures including changing of the operation of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam and the maintenance of cold water curtains on Shasta and Whiskeytown dams, steadily rose from just 200 adult fish in 1991 to 16,764 in 2006. However, the population then declined to 2,403 in 2007, 2,521 in 2007, 4,363 in 2009 and then 1,555 fish in 2010.

“Three or four years ago we thought we were over the hump,” said Stone. “Now we’re back to square one. I hope we get to see the recovery of the winter run in my lifetime.”

To preserve this fragile population, fishing seasons will have to be organized to avoid impacts upon the winter run. Federal biologists recommended raising the recreational size limit to 24 inches, reducing the length of the season, or both.

The management of this endangered species is in transition between a salmon management plan developed nearly two decades ago and a more recent biological opinion protecting Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento winter run and spring run chinook salmon, green sturgeon and the southern resident population of killer whales.

"We're concerned about what happens now to the winter run now that we've seen four straight years of low returns," said Dan Lawson, NMFS biologist. "The old thinking was that as long as the numbers are increasing, we couldn’t be harming the winter run through the fishing regulations.”

Lawson said they are hoping to have a new management plan in operation by 2012.

The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, along with opposing the peripheral canal and a plan to raise Shasta Dam, is trying to pressure the federal and state governments to support their plan to reintroduce McCloud winter run chinook salmon from New Zealand to the McCloud River above Shasta Lake. Thirty members of the Tribe went to New Zealand last spring to conduct joint ceremonies with the Maori people to bring salmon eggs from winter run chinook, now thriving in the Rakaira and other rivers, back to their native river.

The Central Valley spring chinook salmon population, after years of rising abundance due to the removal of dams and other habitat improvements on Butte Creek and other Sacramento River tributaries, has declined over the past few years also. A total of 4,612 fish, including 1,661 hatchery fish and 2,951 natural spawners, returned to the system in 2010. In contrast, an estimated 21,319 natural spawners and 4,052 adult hatchery fish came back in 2005.

The Sacramento River fall chinook run, the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries, declined from 798,770 adult chinooks in 2002 to only 39,530 fish in 2009. The unprecedented collapse prompted the federal and state governments to close recreational and commercial salmon fishing off the California and southern Oregon coast in 2008 and 2009.

Due to improved ocean salmon numbers, a severely restrictive commercial season and short recreational season opened in 2010.

Factors figuring prominently in the Central Valley salmon and Delta pelagic (open water) species collapses include water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, increases in toxic chemicals and ammonia discharges into Central Valley streams and the failure of the state of California to regulate agricultural water pollution. Ocean conditions also played a role in the Sacramento salmon crash.

On the Klamath River, the ocean abundance forecast for fall run chinooks is 371,114 fish, noted Morgan Knechetle, DFG biologist. This compares to an abundance forecast of 331,500 fish in 2010.

“The preseason forecast of the number of fall chinooks returning to the Klamath Basin was 110,700, compared to a post season estimate of 91,000 fish,” he stated. “We didn’t quite make our goal.”

He was concerned that both the Shasta and Scott River natural spawning salmon populations were down in 2010. A total of only 2507 fall chinook returned to the Scott River in 2010, compared to an average run of 5,200 fish. Likewise, only 1,346 salmon returned to the Shasta in 2010, less than one third of average and a far cry from the 75,000 fish that returned to the river in 1935.

The recreational ocean salmon season alternatives from the OR/CA Border to Horse Mountain (California Klamath Management Zone) will all close on September 5, but are based on different opening dates. The three alternatives are May 7 through September 5, May 21 through September 5, and May 28 through September 5.

More information on west coast salmon returns and ocean fisheries can be found online in the PFMC’s Review of the 2010 Ocean Salmon Fisheries.

A list of meetings to be held throughout the season-setting process can be found on DFG’s website.

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