Chinook Salmon: Beautiful, Tasty, Threatened
The commercial Chinook salmon fishing season in California opened on May 1 in Monterey Bay. Captains and crews have traveled from all over the state to fish here - the rest of the fishing areas are currently closed from Pigeon Point, and strong spring winds are making Monterey Bay their best bet. Salmon are truly remarkable creatures and can be found right here in Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and Monterey Counties, where they start and end their lives in small coastal streams and rivers, such as the San Lorenzo and Carmel Rivers, and grow strong and fat dining on anchovies, squid, and krill in the Monterey Bay. They can also be found hundreds of miles inland where they spawn in cool creeks and streams at the headwaters of the Sacramento and Klamath rivers.
The California Department of Fish and Game and the NOAA Fisheries Division track the health of salmon populations at sea and in California rivers and streams using a wide variety of methods. They generate population estimates by tagging juvenile fish and then tracking them throughout their lives. Satellite and radio tags provide information about how the fish move through watersheds and into the ocean. Identification tags are scanned when salmon pass through traps in rivers and streams or when they are caught by fishermen, and allow scientists to make more accurate population estimates. This information gives regulators the information needed to ensure that enough fish are left for future generations and to enact seasonal closures when necessary.
Commercial salmon fishing in California began in the early 1850s, coinciding with the massive rush of miners into gold country. By 1860, salmon fisheries were well established in the San Francisco Bay area and in the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The growth of these fisheries was enhanced by the canning industry, which started operations on the Sacramento River in 1864. This salmon fishing boom lasted only until about 1882, when the fisheries collapsed due to a sudden decline in salmon stocks caused by the pollution and degradation of rivers from mining, agriculture, and timber operations, combined with excessive overfishing. After World War II, fishing efforts started up again in earnest in conjunction with improved transportation methods and a rebound in salmon populations off of the Pacific Coast. Although California ocean fisheries have been issued restrictions by the Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect various salmon stocks of special concern during the last several decades, it wasn’t until the sudden collapse of Sacramento River Chinook salmon stocks in 2007 that a complete closure was enacted in 2008 and 2009. Since then, commercial ocean salmon fishing remains severely constrained to allow enough time for the population to rebuild during and after the season.
The commercial salmon industry in California was not the only one to suffer during the rise and fall of the Chinook population. The loss of habitat and decreasing salmon populations have been affecting Indigenous communities in California since the beginning of industrialization and commercialized agriculture. Traditionally, salmon and steelhead made up more than half of the diet of the Yurok people along the Klamath River and their neighbors. Along with advocating for increased water resources, local Indigenous communities are working to reintroduce native salmon species that are no longer found in California. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe of the upper Sacramento area are pushing for the reintroduction of the original native California strain of winter-run Chinook salmon, recently discovered in New Zealand after being introduced there over a hundred years ago, to the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. Along with these restorative efforts, the Klamath River Tribes are currently engaged in a historic struggle to remove four dams on the Klamath River that interfere with the natural spawning routes of local salmon and steelhead and threaten to dramatically affect Indigenous autonomy and the ways of life they have practiced for thousands of years.
Due to many related factors, the 2021 commercial Chinook salmon season will be shorter than average. After the initial opening from May 1 to May 12, the next seasonal openings in Monterey Bay will be only a few weeks in June, July, and August, with frequent closures to allow officials to closely monitor the population density. The 2021 season dates were determined by the Pacific Marine Fisheries Council with considered input from scientists and the public, and reflect efforts to maximize catches while maintaining the health of Chinook salmon populations. Due to rising temperatures and the ongoing California drought, many rivers where salmon travel to spawn do not have enough water to ensure the survival of the adult fish or their offspring, leading to this year’s short, sporadic fishing season. Some surprising measures are being taken this year to overcome such negative factors - over 16.8 million juvenile Chinook salmon will be driven in trucks from Central Valley hatcheries to the Pacific Ocean, where they will be released to supplement the population in the coming years.
The unique life cycle of the Chinook salmon requires special attention given to conservation and water resource issues, as their continued survival depends on many factors both on land and at sea. Extensive scientific efforts are being made to carefully track salmon populations, and strict fishing requirements and restrictions help to protect against overfishing. Unfortunately, due to the increasing pressures of climate change at sea and on land, these fish need our help. Strict regulations are preventing overfishing, but the ongoing drought and overwhelming demand for water for Central Valley agriculture means that the salmon, as well as the healthy rivers and streams they depend on, need our protection. For this reason, we will be donating $1 for every pound of Salmon we sell this year to several organizations, including CalTrout and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, who work to conserve and protect California salmon populations.
You can also sign the petition to stop the raising of the Shasta Dam at https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/stop-the-raising-of-the-shasta-dam?source=direct_link& and visit the Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s website to learn more about how the Shasta Dam raise will directly affect California ecology and Indigenous autonomy, as well as on CalTrout’s website at https://caltrout.org/news/say-no-to-shasta-dam-raise-again.