Bleak Ocean Salmon Fishing Forecast Is Major Concern (Update)

The Pacific Fisheries’ Marine Council has been in session for more than a week discussing the parameters for the 2021 ocean season, and everyone from fishing guides to conservation agencies have been pessimistic about the short-term and long-term future of salmon runs into the state’s river systems.

Some of the vocal concerns have come from the NorCal Guides and Sportsmens Association, many of whose members rely on salmon runs to stay in business guiding late-summer and fall trips. NCGASA president James Stone, who was part of the PFMC meetings, joined longtime guides J.D. Richey and Bob Sparre on Facebook Wednesday night for an honest assessment of what the future holds, particularly with hatchery production down and inflated numbers of previous counts.

Here’s the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s press release:

California’s recreational salmon fishery will open in ocean waters on Saturday, April 3 in the Monterey management area, from Pigeon Point (37° 11’ 00” N. latitude) south to the U.S./Mexico border, with a minimum size limit of 24 inches. All other areas of the California coast will remain closed until further notice. The remaining 2021 season dates and associated regulations will be finalized next month.

Although the San Francisco and the Fort Bragg management areas were originally scheduled to open in April, on the advice of salmon fishery representatives, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) made the decision to delay the openers in these areas to limit ocean fishery impacts due to poor stock forecasts. Both Klamath River fall Chinook and Sacramento River fall Chinook have reduced ocean abundance forecasts for the 2021 season compared to long term averages, and the PFMC is taking steps to ensure that enough salmon will return to rivers this fall to meet spawner abundance goals.

Traditionally, fishing in the Monterey management area is better early in the season, prompting recreational fishing representatives to prioritize its opening ahead of areas to the north. Although seasons for the San Francisco, Fort Bragg and Klamath management areas are not yet known, the season alternatives that are currently under consideration prioritize opportunity later in the summer, when catch rates are typically better.

Final season dates will be decided during the virtual PFMC meeting to be held April 6-9 and 12-15. The public is invited to comment on the PFMC’s season proposals at that meeting or at a virtual public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23. Details on how to attend the PFMC meeting, public hearing, and ways to provide public comment can be found on the PFMC website at

Anglers are advised to check for updated information when planning a salmon fishing trip. Season dates, bag/possession limit information and gear restrictions can be found on CDFW’s ocean salmon web page at or by calling the Ocean Salmon Regulations Hotline at (707) 576-3429. Public notification of any in-season change to conform state regulations to federal regulations is made through the National Marine Fisheries Service ocean salmon hotline at (800) 662-9825.

We caught up with Stone earlier today and he didn’t hold back his frustration over where the state of Northern California salmon appears to be and what needs to be done to save the species in many of the state’s river systems..

“There three major things that need to be looked at. No. 1 is to raise more hatchery fish – immediately. That has to happen. No. 2 is, we need better survival rate from our natural spawning fish and our hatchery fish – meaning we need to get out to the ocean better. And the third thing is, we have to provide a bare minimum amount of suitable habitat – including water flow and temperature – for spawning adults,” Stone said.

“And if we do those three things, salmon would come back huge.”

Stone was critical of state and federal government agencies as well.

“Our government, the (California) Department of Water Resources, and California Department of Fish and (Wildlife), have failed a publicly trusted resource of salmon by not fighting for water during migrations out to sea and increasing survival. And they’ve failed us to fight for that water in the fall when out adult salmon are spawning,” he said.

“And that also means that our federal government with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fishery Service have failed us to protect these fish, which are both part of the Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Reclamation runs the Sacramento River and the Department of Water Resources runs the Feather River….”

“So when you already have a failing salmon management program, due to the fact that you can not reach across to your fellow government agency that you work with and ask for a little water to get hatchery fish out. Or ask for a little water to ensure that our salmon have simple habitat to spawn. When those government agencies are unwilling to argue and have a case for the salmon, you have left the state with only one option, and that’s artificial propagation for the hatchery system.”

The PFMC will be accepting public comments on the California salmon situation and will meet again on March 23. Click here for more information.

Update: Here’s reaction from the Golden State Salmon Association:

San Francisco, CA  — Officials with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) adopted 2021 Management Alternatives for Public Review,  that could allow some salmon fishing this year while protecting a low number of salmon.  Restrictions being considered include cutting both commercial and sport ocean salmon fishing drastically.  Commercial and sport fishermen and women are likely looking at getting half of a normal season. 
The low number of salmon is primarily traced to unbalanced water practices that regularly divert too much of the water needed by salmon. About 80 percent of the water used in California goes to agriculture with literally trillions of gallons going to grow almonds and other nuts in the western San Joaquin Valley, an area considered a desert.  In the middle of the last drought from 2012 to 2016, as salmon numbers were decimated, 340,000 acres of new almond orchards were added in California. Almonds require a gallon of water to produce a single nut. California’s salmon runs still haven’t recovered from the losses suffered in thatdrought.
Officials forecast there are only about 271,000 adult Sacramento Valley salmon now in the ocean off the West Coast which is far below the 500,000 needed to support a half way decent ocean salmon season.  In the month ahead, the PFMC will decide how much time and area will be closed to sport and commercial ocean salmon fishing in 2021.  The restrictions being considered are the most draconian since the closure of all salmon fishing in 2008 and 2009, which was a historic first.  That closure followed three record setting years of water diversions from the Delta.
Many salmon related jobs and businesses, as well as those in the hospitality industry that typically serve a sector of the sport fishery, will be seriously harmed in 2021. 
“Following a poor commercial crab season, the coming paltry salmon season has us worried about how we’re going to pay the bills and support our families. The local fleets that supply salmon to our markets and restaurants are in very real danger of permanent collapse,” said Sarah Bates who fishes from San Francisco and is a GSSA board member.  
The chronic over-diversion of Central Valley rivers means that hatcheries are increasingly becoming the only place in the Central Valley with conditions needed to keep salmon alive.  The vast majority of the salmon caught in the ocean in 2020 were reared in hatcheries which can keep water temperatures under 56 degrees, the lethal threshold.  The eggs of naturally spawning salmon are wiped out when reservoir releases are cut back and rivers shrink or when the cold water needed to keep salmon alive is diverted for agriculture.  
Although it won’t help for this season, GSSA calls on the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to move SF Bay hatchery releases west from the current release sites near Vallejo to sites closer to the Golden Gate Bridge.  This could increase survival of existing hatchery salmon by 200 to 300 percent.  
“CDFW is fully aware they can double survival of hatchery salmon by simply moving the current release points near Vallejo a few miles west.  Considering the dire situation we’re in, the time to do this is now,” said PCFFA Executive Director and GSSA board member Mike Conroy.  “Maximizing survival of hatchery salmon is going to be critical to keep the industry afloat over the next several years.” 
In the last big drought of 2012 through 2016 many of the naturally spawned salmon were wiped out throughout the Sacramento Basin.  Since then, water managers have not allowed the conditions necessary to recover them.  The State Water Resources Control Board made an attempt to rectify this in 2018 starting with an order to the major diverters of rivers in the San Joaquin Valley to reduce diversions. Then governor-elect Gavin Newsom halted implementation and allowed the major water districts to instead engage in negotiations which has produced a stalemate, allowing business as usual. 
“If the governor would allow the State Water Resources Control Board to balance Central Valley water use, it would go a long way towards helping the salmon industry avoid the type of catastrophe staring us in the face now,” said GSSA president John McManus.  “California could rebuild its salmon runs and the tens of thousands of jobs in the salmon industry.”
“GSSA and our allies are in court trying to win a more balanced water policy that stops the environmental decimation taking place.  We hope the new administration in the White House takes heed of our situation and reverses the damaging water diversion policies of the Trump administration before our salmon are gone,” said Dick Pool, GSSA Secretary.
The low predicted number of Klamath River salmon will also limit fishing from Pigeon Point to the Oregon/Washington border.  Even if Klamath stocks were abundant, this season would still be limited by the low number of Sacramento Basin salmon. 
“To people who fish salmon, it looks like our jobs and our voice don’t count as much as those who choose to grow almonds and pistachios in the desert of the western San Joaquin Valley,” said GSSA director and co-owner of Reel Magic Sportfishing Mike Aughney. 
About GSSA: The Golden State Salmon Association ( is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fishermen and women, businesses, restaurants, a native tribe, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. GSSA’s mission is to restore California salmon for their economic, recreational, commercial, environmental, cultural and health values. 
Currently, California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity and 23,000 jobs annually in a normal season and about half that much in economic activity and jobs again in Oregon. Industry workers benefiting from Central Valley salmon stretch from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon. This includes commercial fishermen and women, recreational fishermen and women (fresh and salt water), fish processors, marinas, coastal communities, equipment manufacturers, the hotel and food industry, tribes, and others.