Salmon population dwindling in California

January 20, 2009 11:10:01 AM PST
Fishermen are bracing themselves for another major salmon shortage this year. The number of salmon returning to spawn in Central California continues to be at record lows.

California's salmon fisheries may be closed for a second year in a row.

You don't have to look far to see there's a problem at the Mokelumne Fish Hatchery in eastern San Joaquin County. Tubs and trays should all be full of young salmon, but most are empty.

Harry Morris is with the California Department of Fish and Game. He says thousands young Chinook or King salmon are missing from the facility.

"Normally the number of returning adult fish is about 5,500, and this year we had 239. That's a significant difference," said Morris.

Each year, the state oversees the capture of thousands of salmon who've returned from the ocean to spawn and die in California's Central Valley.

Not this year. At each of the state's Delta hatcheries, they've barely caught their quota of fish to spawn.

At the Mokelumne Hatchery, there are just 300,000 eggs to work with.

"It is extremely difficult. We need to get anywhere from eight to nine million eggs to raise six million small smelts, back out to the ocean and it's just not going to happen," said Morris.

It's bad news for the fish -- worse news for California fishermen. Salmon reared in the Central Valley make up for 90 percent of the Chinook caught off the California coast.

At Pillar Point Harbor in San Mateo County, memories of last year's disastrous salmon fishing season are still fresh.

"No, I don't think there's going to be a season for this year," said salmon fisherman Jim Anderson.

Last year's record lows were so bad, the Pacific Fishery Management Council shut down the California coast to all salmon fishing.

"Salmon is where we make our bread and butter. And without it, pretty much puts a bind on the family economic situation," said salmon fisherman Duncan McLean.

"Oh geez, it can be 60, 80 percent of my income," said Anderson.

Commercial salmon fishing alone is a $220 million industry in California. This is the fourth bad year in a row for fishermen, but the possible closure of the fisheries reaches beyond the harbor docks.

"There are two million jobs related to fishing that are basically lost because of these closures and stuff. It's not good, the bed and breakfasts suffer, the McDonalds, the libraries, everything suffers, because we are not working," said McLean.

Scientists and environmentalists are trying to figure out just what happened.

Barry Nelson is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group.

"We've reached a point now, where the winter run of salmon is listed under the Endangered Species Act, so is the Spring Run, so is Steelhead, Green Sturgeon, Delta Smelt a growing list of species are all in trouble, including salmon," said Nelson.

The NRDC is among a growing number of groups who blame the state's water projects for the current crisis in the Delta.

Miles of levees and millions of gallons of water are pumped from the Sacramento Delta to supply water for farmers in the Central Valley, as well as Southern California.

As a result, Sacramento Chinooks have lost an estimated 70 percent of their original spawning habitat.

"The leading fisheries' biologists now believe that if we don't start managing water differently in California, we'll lose our salmon fishery permanently," said Nelson.

The state hopes that doesn't become the case. They continue to breed what salmon they can, hoping they can save the king salmon from extinction.

"This is one of our most cherished, beautiful fish, and they are kind of an icon for California. We should care besides for the economic impacts and importance of these fish not only to the economy but to the Delta system and the river and oceans," said Morris.

The major stakeholders in this debate will meet next month to review the salmon numbers. The Pacific Fishery Management Council will decide in March whether to allow salmon fishing off the California coast.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.