Features & Columns

PRIZE CATCH: Hans Haveman of H&H Fish Co. with his son, holding a freshly caught chinook salmon.

The inception of farmed
salmon during the abundant '90s had a huge impact on local fishermen, whose price was brought down to 97 cents per pound, says Haveman. "Now it's come full circle. People learn more about farmed fish, and they're breaking down the door for wild fish," says Haveman, who says prices are now around $5 to $8 per pound off the docks.

According to McManus, California's salmon fishery, currently estimated at around $1.4 billion and employing 23,000, would be more like $6 billion if abundance was restored to 1988 levels. "And that money gets spread all over; it's the guy at the fuel docks who's getting money for fuel, it's the guy at the boatyard who had to fix your boat, it's the guy who sells the trailers, runs the harbor, fishing equipment," says McManus.

About 60 percent of salmon caught in Washington and Oregon are Central Valley fish, he adds, so it's not just our economy that gets hurt during bad fishing years.

While Quick says he's seen an increase in small sardines, a potential good sign for salmon, Greg Ambiel, who has been fishing salmon locally for 30 years, is not hedging any bets for this coming season.

"The fish are being killed in the Central Valley before they get a chance to get to the ocean," says Ambiel. "If you follow the money, that's who gets the water. It's simple, just go look at the almond trees in the Central Valley."

Indeed, over the last few years, a fairly drastic shift has occurred, with high-profit almond crops replacing raisin grapes and other less profitable crops in the Central Valley. The problem for salmon is that it takes a gallon of water to produce one almond—which is three times more water than it takes to produce a grape—according to a study published in 2011 at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Water demands for agriculture are a known contributor to an estimated 95 percent loss of salmon's critical rearing ground in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The success of the 2016 season also relies on the survival rate of the juveniles who went to sea in the spring of 2014. "That was a transition year from what looked like really good ocean conditions in 2012, 2013, the spring of 2014. But by the fall of that year, it started to look really bad," says Mantua, who says ocean temperatures remained warmer than normal for all of 2015, which is not favorable.

Last month, O'Farrell began the process of calculating 2016 abundance forecasts for both the Sacramento and Klamath rivers and tributaries—based on data that includes the return of fish the previous fall. Each March, he reports the number to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, who then sets the season in April.

"Where we're at right now, we've come out of the very low abundance periods of 2008 and 2009, but we don't know exactly what the returns are for this past year," says O'Farrell.


Under ideal conditions, a hatchery will produce a lot more juvenile salmon smolts that are ready to go to the ocean from a single pair of parents than could be produced in the wild. But drought can tip those odds considerably: for the past two years, 95 percent of winter-run salmon were killed off by low water levels and high temperatures in the Sacramento River, and 98 percent of salmon eggs perished in the Red Bluff area this year. The drought also left Lake Shasta at low levels. Such conditions that hurt the winter run are not good for the other runs either, says McManus.

Heavy rains not only raise river levels to help salmon down the river, they also raise water turbidity, which acts as a cloaking device against predators. The last year that happened was in the winter of 2010-2011, says McManus. "It started raining in October, and it didn't really stop until June. So, in a situation like that, in spite of the dam, there's so much water everywhere that it mimics the way it used to be in the good old days before the dams," he says. "In fact, you get a bunch of runoff coming down even below the dams. So in situations like that, survival of the juvenile salmon is quite high."

In 2014, to avoid high loss of baby salmon due to low, clear water conditions during drought, the GGSA began encouraging all of the state's hatcheries to truck their productions down to the bay to release them safely. Of five major hatcheries, which collectively produce around 32 million juvenile salmon, says McManus, two were already trucking 100 percent of their production, and by 2015, GGSA had gotten the other three to also give their smolts a ride—which is expensive.

"The biggest hatchery we have in the Central Valley is called the Coleman Hatchery, up by Redding," McManus says. "It produces 12.5 million juvenile salmon every year, and it's around 280 miles from the Bay. You can fit about 120,000 in a tanker truck, so if you think about it, that's over 300 truckloads."

This means there could be a fairly good chunk of hatchery-produced salmon out in the ocean this year—and old enough to be fished—as a result of the 2014 trucking, says McManus.

But while scientists and fishermen agree that trucking prompted an increase in survival, Steve Lindley, leader of the Fisheries Ecology Division at NOAA, says that the practice is the only GGSA-backed idea that his lab does not agree with.

"We have serious concerns about the longterm consequences of those practices for the genetic integrity of the stock," says Lindley. When salmon make their way down the river on their own, they use their sense of smell to memorize their way back. "When they're trucked, the fish can't find their way back to where they were born very accurately, and they end up going all over the place, and they interbreed with each other."

Restoring Hope

While the Central Valley Improvement Act, passed in 1992, ambitiously hoped to double the number of salmon and steelhead trout in the Sacramento River basin over the past 22 years, they've fallen short. While their goal was to see 86,000 spring-run chinook salmon spawning in the Central Valley by 2012, the number was just 30,522. Federal officials cited obstacles such as drought, competing demands for water and lack of funding.

But Lindley points to success stories in Central Valley wetland restoration in places like Clear Creek and Butte Creek. "These shallow areas that are nurseries for salmon, those populations have done very well, even during the poor ocean and drought periods," he says. "So it's not a lost cause. But we do really need to address some of these habitat issues, and find a way to operate salmon hatcheries in a way that supports our fisheries without imperiling their long-term liability. We're really keen on working with GGSA and the fishing community and the broader fish and water communities to try to find those kind of solutions."

The GGSA is also working with researchers at NOAA to identify areas of high predation along the river and delta, to try to restore some of the historic rearing areas where the fish can pick up weight and size and find refuge from predators.

"The public awareness is basically the water issues in the Central Valley," says Haveman. "This is the most vital resource and everybody can access here in California, and it starts in that river system and ends on the dinner plate."

Lindley thinks that the California WaterFix plan is a step in the right direction as far as making the state a little more resistant to drought and helping revive fish populations. The $20 billion program would utilize pumps and tunnels under the delta that would allow water to be taken out more efficiently. In the current system, a large amount of freshwater is pumped into the delta during the summer months to keep saltwater out, which is not only a waste of water but creates a big lake-like environment for freshwater fish to eat juvenile salmon, says Lindley.

There has been success on the Columbia River since 2005, when water managers were required to begin opening the reservoirs every springtime, says McManus.

"It's worked wonders. The salmon runs in the Columbia River have rebounded big time. And it's because of this runoff, it's artificial runoff but it mimics natural runoff, and it functions exactly the same way. It carries the baby salmon in that camouflaged turbidity rapidly down the river, which is all you need," McManus says. "So, in California, if we had something like that we would see a real beneficial result, rapidly."