Dismal Numbers For Winter-Run Chinook

CDFW photo by Harry Morse

In this episode of depressing salmon news … check out this press release from the Golden Gate Salmon Association: 

San Francisco  — The California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, (CDFW) estimates that only 1,123 adult winter run salmon returned to the Central Valley in 2017, according to a report sent to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.  This is the second lowest number of returning adult winter run salmon since modern counting techniques were implemented in 2003, undercut only by the 824 that returned in 2011.

In 2014 and 2015, the years these fish were born, state and federal fish agencies reported losses of 95 percent of this and other groups of salmon.  The losses were caused by water management choices by the federal Bureau of Reclamation during the drought which failed to retain enough cold water for release from Lake Shasta for successful spawning. Barely adequate cold water supplies existed early in 2014 and again in 2015 when GGSA and others warned the Bureau of Reclamation of the peril facing winter run salmon.  The warnings fell on deaf ears. Elevated river temperatures killed most of the salmon eggs incubating in the river.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) defines water temperatures needed by winter run as well as where these temperatures need to apply and for how long.  After the high losses of California’s salmon stocks in 2014 and 2015, NMFS is now moving to strengthen cold water protections for winter run but is meeting resistance.

“If we don’t want extinction on our watch, state and federal leaders need to support stronger protections for salmon in the rivers of the Central Valley where most California salmon come from,” said GGSA executive director John McManus. “The low number of winter run salmon that survived the drought to return this year makes crystal clear the need for NMFS to greatly increase temperature protections for these fish in the upper Sacramento Valley where they reproduce.”

Fishery managers have known since 2014 to expect low numbers of adult salmon in 2017, since most return to spawn at age three. Ocean sport and commercial salmon fishing has been constrained to avoid contact with the few winter run survivors, at a great cost to some harbors.

“The economic damage to our salmon runs and ocean salmon fishery didn’t seem to match the concern federal water managers showed for other competing interests when drought forced hard choices,” said GGSA vice chairman Mike Aughney.  “The damage demonstrates the need for federal fishery managers to do the job they’re paid to do, which is protect the fishery resources many of us rely on.”

Winter run salmon are listed as endangered by the federal and state governments.  The CDFW report says it’s possible a few more may be counted in the next several weeks and a final estimate will be available by early October.

CDFW estimates the majority of this year’s returning winter run (83 percent) were hatchery-origin.  Hatchery origin winter run born in 2014 were given adequate cold water for egg hatching and rearing in the controlled hatchery environment while their natural origin cousins were being killed off in the river.  Knowing that conditions in the river would likely turn lethal, hatchery managers produced more salmon in 2014 than usual.

“The federal water managers who refused to reserve the cold water needed by salmon in 2014 would like the current consequences to go unseen, something GGSA won’t agree to,” said GGSA secretary Dick Pool.  “The federal fishery managers at NMFS who had the power to force more protective water management actions at the time didn’t.  Federal and state fish agency heads need to learn from this.”

The Golden Gate Salmon Association (www.goldengatesalmonassociation.org) is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fisherman, businesses, restaurants, a native tribe, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. GGSA’s mission is to protect and restore California’s largest salmon producing habitat comprised of the Central Valley river’s that feed the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the communities that rely on salmon as a long-term, sustainable, commercial, recreational and cultural resource.