California’s struggling salmon fishery forces policymakers to put protections in place


The salmon that run along the Northern California coast have dwindled in recent years, raising concern among local communities and causing protections to be put in place by officials and conservationists.

Salmon play a key role in the local economy through sport and commercial fishing, and they are an indicator of ecosystem health. Alternating each year between fresh water rivers and the open sea, the species is instrumental to California’s ecological history.

Salmon have been battling many environmental challenges, as noted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, including warmer water temperatures and lower nutrient levels. Dams upstream have also caused low river-water levels, making salmon more susceptible to disease. Because of these issues, the fishery is now struggling and highly constrained, forcing policymakers to take action.

“There is a closure in a particular area off of the California coast called the Klamath Management Zone. We put that in place to help us protect those stocks of chinook salmon that are returning to the Klamath River and to reduce fishing pressure,” said Robin Ehlke, Pacific Fishery Management Council staff officer. “Because the run is projected to be so low this year, that entire area is closed to both sport and commercial salmon fishing but there are areas both north and south of that that are open.”

The California salmon fishery is managed by both federal and state government and is divided into geographic sectors based on where salmon return to spawn along the coast. The Pacific Fishery Management Council regulates the fishery through the 1977 Fishery Conservation and Management Plan, which as described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was designed to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, maximize the economic value of the resource and achieve the maximum biological yield of the fishery.

The culture and livelihood of fishermen and native communities along the Klamath River who depend on this fishery will be heavily impacted by the closure. For the fishery to be completely reopened, the Pacific Fishery Management Council says that more adult salmon need to survive. Unless salmon returns increase, other fishery sectors could be closed and the future of California’s salmon population will continue to be at risk.

The Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project (MBSTP), a hatchery located in Davenport, California, works toward the restoration and enhancement of the fishery in the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz area. The hatchery says it has released over six million juvenile chinook and coho salmon into nearby creeks and watersheds, supplementing the natural salmon fishery which otherwise might no longer exist.

“Our primary goal is the recovery of the species in this area so that they don’t need to have hatchery supplementation,” said Mathers Rowley, director of the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project. “The purpose of what we do is to sustain a high level of genetic diversity in the natural population and to recover the fish to their local native state.”

Only about 10 percent of state hatchery-produced chinook salmon successfully make the journey from those hatcheries to the ocean, which Rowley notes is primarily because of obstacles such as dams, water diversions and invasive non-native predator fish. The hatchery has observed that the decrease in salmon abundance has also decreased their genetic diversity, lowering the species’ chance of long-term survival. All of these factors — on top of an already struggling fishery due to pre-existing ecosystem challenges — has left the salmon fishery in crisis. Fishery experts say that losing the salmon population could damage the California fishery economy, destabilize the local ecosystem and result in a loss of ecological history.

The regulations put in place by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the salmon conservation and supplementation work done by the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project and the spread of awareness of the importance of salmon and the fishery may be crucial to saving this species so iconic to the California coast.

CLARIFICATION (updated 6:15 p.m. PT on 6/29/17): This story was updated to better explain the journey of the state hatchery-produced chinook salmon.