California Salmon in Trouble

February 26, 2024 By: Spencer Durrant

When we talk about salmon and steelhead recovery, we largely focus on the waters of the Pacific Northwest – the Columbia River Basin, the various rivers draining into Puget Sound, and the rivers in coastal British Columbia. Little, if any, time is dedicated to concern about the salmon (and steelhead) fisheries located along California’s coast.

California has persistent populations of salmon and steelhead, but they don’t get the same attention as their northern brethren. However, they need just as much help.

A recent press release from the Golden State Salmon Association highlights the perils that California’s salmon populations – specifically on the Sacramento River – face.

“The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) released its review of the 2023 salmon fisheries and reported a total of 133,638 hatchery and natural area adult spawning fall-run Chinook were estimated to have returned to the Sacramento River Basin last year,” according to Scott Artis, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association.

That number of 133,638 king salmon is well below the 164,964 escapement numbers the PFMC set as a minimum threshold. In other words, the PFMC needed to see 164,964 king salmon escape to spawn throughout the Sacramento River Basin in order to ensure the continued viability of that species on the landscape.

Artis goes on to blame the water policies of California governor Gavin Newsom as a leading cause of the decline in chinook salmon numbers.

“These salmon numbers are yet another reminder of the incredibly negative impacts of California’s water policies on salmon families,” said Artis. “The Newsom Administration has made it clear that salmon in our rivers, salmon in our oceans, and local salmon on the back decks of boats that feed families and support tens of thousands of jobs is acceptable collateral damage for the continued diversions of vast quantities of water required by unsustainable industrial almond operations.”

Water being diverted for water-hungry crops is not a new theme in the plight of salmon and steelhead, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s happening in California. But the state also saw a closure of salmon fishing in 2023, only the second time in history that the state has barred anyone from fishing for salmon.

“Fishery managers typically allow fishing that will still deliver a minimum of 122,000 salmon to spawn in the Sacramento Basin, but in recent years they’ve increased that target number,” Golden State Salmon Association said in a press release. “In 2022, fishing was curtailed in an effort to see more than 180,000 fall run salmon return to spawn but less than 62,000 actually showed up.”

Artis doesn’t let up on his critique of Newsom, blaming him singularly for the policies that have forced water diversions in the Sacramento River Basin. Those diversions reduce available cold water for salmon to spawn and live in as juveniles, and Artis also claims that many juvenile chinook are getting sucked into water pumps that divert the river flow to agricultural needs, as well.

“When you kill all of the baby salmon through environmentally disastrous water policies, 3 years later there won’t be fish to catch or spawning adult fish,” Artis said. “This is a blatant attack on fish, rivers, the Bay-Delta ecosystem, and tens of thousands of salmon families from California to Oregon.”