For the second straight year, huge numbers of juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon appear to have baked to death in the Sacramento River because of California’s drought, federal officials said Wednesday, bringing the endangered species a step closer to extinction. The news raises the specter of more agricultural water cuts next summer and restrictions on next year’s commercial and recreational salmon fishing seasons.
The disclosure by the National Marine Fisheries Service suggests a complicated and controversial effort to save this year’s run of salmon may have ended largely in failure, although officials said they wouldn’t have definitive numbers until late November or early December.
“We try to be hopeful, but this is not good news,” Maria Rea, the fisheries agency’s assistant regional manager, said in a conference call with reporters.
Federal officials sharply curtailed flows of water coming out of Lake Shasta, delaying deliveries of water to hundreds of Central Valley farmers who had already planted their crops, in what turned out to be a futile effort to keep enough cold water in the system to keep as many of the fish alive as possible.
If the preliminary figures prove to be reliable, it would be the second year in a row that nearly all of the juvenile winter-run Chinook were essentially cooked to death because the water in the Sacramento River got too warm. Officials estimate that last year, only 5 percent survived long enough to migrate out to sea.
Preliminary counts indicate this year’s situation is worse, officials said, although they wouldn’t quote any percentages. This year, more adult fish ran up the river than they did in 2014. Because of this, officials were optimistic that after the adult fish spawned and died in the river, more of their offspring would be swimming back down stream to the Pacific Ocean.
State officials are likely to be under siege from these prognostications. The Golden State Salmon Association released the following statement from executive director John McManus:
“Salmon fishermen are very concerned about the alarming low number of winter run salmon being counted in the Sacramento River. We could see restrictions on our ability to make a living fishing to cover for the mistakes of federal water managers who failed to follow the law requiring them to keep enough cold water in Lake Shasta to support salmon spawning. Droughts are always hard on salmon but water management decisions made it worse this year.”