Re: California-Oregon Salmon Fishery Collapses

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Posted by gonphishing on March 13, 2008 at 18:42:00:

In Reply to: California-Oregon Salmon Fishery Collapses posted by Jim Haw on March 12, 2008 at 09:39:46:

everything is changing. the mayans might be right. what was that date again dec 21st 2012. I know its a big jump from salmon fishing to ancient prophecy. its not just the salmon. its everywhere you look. and nobody wants to see it or talk about it. I expect we will see wars over water in the near future.

Salmon Perfect Storm
Mike Aughney

Revised January 31st

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) came out with the 2007 Central Valley (CV) salmon return numbers and they are some of the lowest on record. For some reason many in the sportfishing community were surprised by the record low numbers. WERE NOT!

It should come as no surprise to sport salmon anglers or regular readers of this site that the numbers are this low and next year's return is expect to reset the (limbo) bar. This writer has been on the record as saying 2007 will come in as the lowest and 2008 looks to be far worse. The PFMC just validated what we have been saying for the past year.

The California Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG) said that only 90,000 adult Chinook salmon returned to all of the Central Valley rivers this past fall. This is half of the 180,000 escapement goal and the second worse return on record. Just five years ago in 2002, 800,000 plus adult salmon returned to the CV. This past season only 2000 jack (two year old juveniles) salmon returned which is just 5% of the average 40,000 that returned over the past 20 plus seasons. The jack returns are a good indicator of what to expect the following year and are used to estimate run strengths or in this case weaknesses of the following year's run.

In a nutshell don't expect to have a fresh California salmon steak on your plate this year, or next or in 2010. In fact I don't expect salmon numbers to start rebounding until 2011 and that is ONLY IF we take care of what is wrong now.

How did we get here?
Well, the water contractors will tell you it's due to "poor ocean conditions" and the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta says "it's those damn nonnative striped bass." NOT! It's not giant squid, sealions or global warming either. It's the collapse of the Delta food web and the poor release practices of hatchery salmon by the CDFG.

Water exports out of the Delta have increased by nearly 30% over the past five years. This, in turn, has wiped out the base of the Delta food web, tiny plankton that juvenile salmon and countless other fish such as striped bass, smelt, shad and other key species rely on for food when they are very young. Due to the over pumping of the Delta, plankton cannot reproduce fast enough to rebuild their microscopic empire. Basically it takes 4 to 5 days for plankton to reproduce and the bulk of the Delta water is pumped south or turned over (85% goes to farms) every three days. The result is that the very base of the Delta food chain is wiped out and with it our fisheries.

There has been a lot in the press from the water contractors side about "poor ocean conditions" being the reason for the salmon decline and I want to make a couple of points against that argument.

1: The 2007 three year old salmon fall Klamath run was very strong and came in well above what was expected. These fish feed and spend most of their life in the same ocean waters as the CV fall run. If it was ocean conditions why did we see so many fat and healthy 5 to 10 pound salmon return to the Klamath last season?

2: The Sacramento river 2007 spring run was one of the BEST returns in the past 3 DECADES. Not only do these fish share the same watershed but also spend their "ocean life" in the same waters as the Sacramento fall run. They do migrate out at different times of the year and this supports the argument that the blame lies in the Delta water diversion and the collapse of the food web. These numbers have been verified by John Beuttler of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

3: We had some huge blow out storms in (New Years Day) 2005 that likely wiped out many of the "naturally produced Fall run salmon redds of the previous months which will always bring salmon numbers down. This could be part of the reason for the lack of jacks this past year.
When the snows melt, juvenile wild salmon (most just 3 to 5 inches long) are programmed to migrate through the delta to the ocean in the late spring and summer. The bulk of their diet during this migration through the Delta consists of plankton but plankton counts the past five years have plummeted by as much as 90%. Juvenile salmon can't make it from Sacramento to San Pablo Bay without fat reserves or eating so they and many other key species are literally starving to death.

The PFMC will be making their recommendations for our ocean sport and commercial salmon seasons this coming March and April. More than likely politics will trump good science and their final three recommendations will run from no sport or commercial salmon season at all to maybe a three or four month sport season and though unlikely, a very limited commercial season on the North coast. After all the CDFG will want to collect those commercial salmon permit moneys and sell sportfishing licenses. They do a great job of collecting license fees but have done nothing to stop the decline of our fisheries much less manage them despite having a huge biologic team telling them otherwise.

What needs to be done to fix the problem?
If I had a voice on the council I would vote for a full 2008 ocean sport and commercial salmon season similar to 2007. We have been down this road before in the early 80s (due to the drought of 78 and 79) and the early 90s due to the prolonged drought of 1986 through 1992. The salmon numbers were down then but recovered quickly once we saw a couple of average to above average water years.

I know I will be pounded by my advertisers and other anglers for this opinion. But I feel that the CV rivers should remain open to fishing but only for salmon under 20" can be retained. We need to protect the spawning stocks to seed future runs and should remain so until the returns hit a floor of at least 120K. Fish and Game knew what that this year's return was gong to be well in the red but did nothing and they should have announced an emergency closure by November 1st of 2007. Instead they had a biologist come out a say that "the fish just must be late."

Salmon really don't need us to intervene during these lean years for their recovery but we sure like to think so. They do just fine once river flows return opening up both good spawning habitat and a healthy food chain from their native rivers to the ocean. All they need is water and healthy habitats and they will survive in lean times and thrive in good water years.

The difference this time is that it's not a drought that brought the returns down, it's the 30% increase in water exports out of the Delta. We did get a favorable ruling this past December that decreased water exports out of the Delta next spring and summer by up to 30%. The only objection I have to the ruling is that this only brought water exports (which have been increased by 30% since 2003) down by 30% so there is no net gain.

Subsidized cotton growers receive in the neighborhood of 2 million acre feet of subsidized water annually. This is enough to supply as many 10 million California residents. Cotton growers cannot make a profit without getting both cheap (subsidized) water and federal subsides checks for their crop which are as high as $500,000 per farm. Imagine if we just stopped growing cotton in California? We could keep 2 million acre feet of water to support the Delta and have some to spare to cities that rely on the Delta for their residential water supply.

Closing the ocean sport or commercial salmon season will do NOTHING to help CV salmon recover. A healthy sustainable Delta is key to the recovery of our salmon runs. When there are few salmon to be caught (as we saw in 2007) fishing effort and harvest is minimal. Catches will be best during the spring months (as we have seen the past three years) when favorable ocean conditions attract migrating salmon into the Central and Northern California waters. Once these fish start to migrate back to their native rivers up north (think Klamath, Eel and Oregon and the Columbia River) catches will drop dramatically and so will the fishing pressure.

There is already a lot of talk in the threads and chat rooms around the web about "fighting for the season." As we have said before, fighting for a season when there will be few fish (other than migratory) to catch is a dead end. We need to fight for healthy river flows and a sustainable Delta. Without this our salmon runs will NEVER recover.

The CDFG also needs to treat each and every salmon in their hatcheries now like gold. These fish are one of the best investments we have "in the bank" now to nurse our salmon runs back to health and the past release practices have to be stopped. We need to have not only acclimation pens but multiple release sites supported by both CDFG biologists and volunteers. The wholesale dumping of fish off a boat ramp to 10s of thousands of waiting birds and striped bass must stop. Hatchery fish need to be acclimated in pens and then released in either deep water or at night to stop the wholesale predation.

On a final note sport anglers must get involved both politically and finically. If every California sport angler donated the equivalent of what they spent on their annual fishing license to fishery groups over $100 MILLION dollars could be raised. There are over two million sport anglers in California and sportfishing pumps over $3 billion dollars into the California economy. It's time for all different fishery groups to start working together on key issues or this train is going to run us all over.
Mike Aughney

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