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California salmon season in jeopardy

June 23, 2023  By Julia Hollister

California Department of Fish and Wildlife releasing Chinook salmon smolts in Feather River (Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Although the majority of the salmon community is alarmed by the closing of the 2023 season, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has some encouraging news.

The not so good 2023 projection for Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon is the second lowest stock forecast on record. The first was in 2008.

The season’s closure was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and likely will be approved in mid-May by the Marine Fisheries Service. 

At a press conference in San Francisco April 7, representatives from various segments of the fishing community came together with state officials, politicians and U.S. House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).


Gov. Gavin Newsom, Pelosi, state officials, hotels and recreational and commercial salmon fishing are calling for help. This disaster declaration would provide relief to those who will likely be faced with mounting financial damages from the closures.

John McManus, senior policy director for the Golden State Salmon Association said there is “fear and panic” up and down the coast with families trying to figure out how they are going to pay bills.

Closure effects
Andy Giuliano owns Fish Emeryville Company and he has boats in the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay since 1971.

“King salmon, represents approximately 40 per cent of our gross revenue, and we hope that the closure will not last into 2024,” he says. “But it will depend on how many fish return to the freshwater in the next 10 months.”

He heard reports that few fish were returning to the main Sacramento and Feathers rivers in November and December, so the closure was not a complete surprise. 

“Hatcheries were built to mitigate habitat loses from the construction of Shasta and Orville dam in the late 1960/’70s,” Giuliano says. “Without them, there would be little or few salmon in California.”

“In most years they supplement the natural spawners and support healthy returns. In the past several years many of the smolts have been tricked down to the San Francisco Bay to avoid low warm water and hazardous predator fish in the Delta,” he adds.

Salmon captain, Sarah Bates, from San Francisco said salmon are a resilient species that have been swimming up these rivers for about as long as humans have been walking on two legs. They have survived landslides and droughts.

“What they can’t survive is some water management policies that are putting their breeding habitat at risk,” she says.

Reason for hope
There is better news coming. Information officer, Peter Tira, explains that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Sacramento Valley salmon hatcheries continue to support California’s salmon populations and have modified some operations this year to take advantage of favourable environmental conditions and to offset impacts of the drought and low river returns the past few years.

“CDFW is conducting in-river releases of salmon smolts once again in the Feather and American rivers,” says Tira. “There were no in-river releases in 2022 due to poor river conditions and the smolts were taken directly to the ocean and points within the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. We will continue to do ocean and bay releases again in 2023.”

In Feather River, CDFW has coordinated some smolt releases with “pulse flows” out of Oroville Reservoir by the California Department of Water Resources. This extra burst or release of water replicates natural surges in water flows that would occur in wet years such as this and helps carry the smolts into rearing habitat within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and speeds their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

“For the second year in a row, our Nimbus Fish Hatchery and Feather River Fish Hatchery have increased their production of fall-run Chinook salmon to offset impacts of the drought, poor river conditions, and a thiamine deficiency impacting natural salmon reproduction,” says Tira.

“Given the favourable river conditions, we are also experimenting with pre-smolt salmon releases in-river and parentage-based tagging. Outside of our hatchery operations, we continue to support salmon habitat restoration efforts.”

CFDW Sacramento Valley fall-run salmon hatchery production totals:

Feather River Fish Hatchery:

  • 2023: 9.1 million fish (smolts/juveniles)
  • 2022: 8 million smolts
  • Typical production goal is 6 million smolts

Nimbus Fish Hatchery:

  • 2023: 5.5 million fish (smolts/fry)
  • 2022: 4.5 million smolts
  • Typical production goal is 4 million smolts

Mokelumne River Hatchery :

  • 2023: 6.5 million smolts
  • 2022: 6.5 million smolts
  • Typical production goal is 6.5 million smolts

Salmon strongholds
The CDFW announced nearly US$36 million in projects to benefit salmon and their habitats, and to further support climate resiliency, wildlife corridors and wetlands restoration.

Saving salmon and rebuilding their populations for future Californians involves many key actions including investing in and restoring salmon strongholds as climate refuge, increasing partnerships, working with local Indigenous tribes, doing more large-scale restoration at a faster pace, modernizing old infrastructure and creating fish passage around migration barriers. Today’s awards invest in those types of salmon projects.

CDFW is awarding $20 million in Drought Emergency Salmon Protection Grants to 10 projects demonstrating support from and collaboration with Tribes and landowner interests in the Shasta and Scott rivers and their watersheds. These include habitat improvement, removal of barriers to fish passage and groundwater recharge projects. 

CDFW is also awarding $9 million from the same fund to Tribes in the Klamath River mainstem for post-McKinney Fire debris flow damage remediation, slope and sediment stabilization, and restoration for salmonids.

“The Klamath, Scott and Shasta rivers are historic salmon strongholds where this kind of restoration investment will make a big impact,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “The investments to support these 10 projects is happening in parallel to the largest river restoration in America’s history now underway to remove four dams on the mainstem of the Klamath River.”

Nature-based solutions
Additionally, CDFW is awarding $6.9 million to nine projects to further support nature-based solutions, climate resiliency, wildlife corridors and wetlands restoration.

“Each week, each month that passes by on the calendar, California’s climate challenges increase, change and present a need to implement projects designed to keep pace,” Bonham said. “We are matching this pace with ongoing funding commitments to new projects, moving away from a once-a-year announcement of awards to fund more projects, toward sustained momentum.”

Projects funded with these grants will go toward planning and implementation of wetlands and mountain meadows including expanding habitat for Lahontan cutthroat trout habitat on the Upper Truckee River, addressing urgent degrading water and habitat conditions due to climate change impacts in Shasta and Sonoma counties, and creating habitat connectivity through wildlife corridors funding for species such as Clear Lake hitch and newts, among other projects.  

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