Sarah Bates, the captain of a fishing boat in San Francisco, had a feeling something was wrong with the chinook salmon population back in December.
“The fish weren’t coming up the river, and to a certain extent, we were just waiting,” Bates, 46, told CNN. “We thought the run was late. And then at some point, it just became clear that fish weren’t coming.”
But she and other fishermen weren’t sure how bad it could be. It later turned out that catchers along much of the West Coast likely won’t be fishing for salmon at all this year.
“Salmon is my livelihood. It’s my main fishery,” she said. “And it’s the main fishery for a lot of folks in Fisherman’s Wharf. So, I think there are a lot of us that have some hard times coming.”
In early March, West Coast regulators announced that they may recommend a ban on salmon fishing this year. It would be only the second time salmon fishing season has been canceled in California.
The looming ban comes as the West sees a massive decline in fish populations following a blistering, multiyear drought that drained reservoirs and dehydrated much of the land, particularly in California.
The potential closure, which the Pacific Fishery Management Council is discussing in a multi-day meeting that began Saturday, would affect tens of thousands of people like Bates who depend on salmon fishing for their economic livelihood. It will also upset thousands of Californians who enjoy recreational fishing during the summer.
The council, which manages fisheries off the Pacific Coast and advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on potential bans like this one, had previously recommended three options for this year – but all of them would result in a cancellation of the salmon fishing season through at least next spring.
These are necessary measures, according to California and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials, to protect the dwindling Chinook salmon populations, which scientists say have fallen to their lowest levels in recent years due to rampant dam construction as well as climate change-fueled droughts.
“The outlook is really bad,” Ben Enticknap, Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist with Oceana, told CNN.
Dams, drought and climate change
Beginning their lives in freshwater systems, then traveling out to the salty ocean and back again to their spawning grounds, Pacific salmon face a variety of dangers.
Manmade dams, which were built decades ago and are prolific on Oregon and California rivers, prevent many salmon species from swimming back to their spawning grounds. Large swaths of wetlands and other estuaries, where smaller fish can feed and find refuge, have also been plagued by infrastructure development.
Then there are the consequences of the climate crisis: Warmer water temperatures and drought-fueled water shortages in rivers and streams can kill salmon eggs and juvenile fish.
Michael Milstein, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, also said the models that many scientists use to forecast salmon returns and fishing success “appear to be getting less accurate.”
“They have been overestimating returning salmon numbers and underestimating the number caught,” Milstein told CNN. “That has further complicated the picture. Since the models are based on past experience, they struggle with conditions we have not seen before.”
In late 2022, one of California’s driest years on record, estimates show that the Sacramento River chinook returned to the Central Valley at near-record-low numbers. Meanwhile, the Klamath River, which flows from Oregon to California, had the second-lowest forecast for chinook salmon since 1997, when the current assessment method started.
State and federal scientists forecast that less than 170,000 adult salmon will return to the Sacramento River this year – one of the lowest forecasts since 2008, which was the only other time the salmon season was closed. They also estimate that less than 104,000 will likely return to the Klamath River.
“Climate change is expected to be detrimental to Pacific salmon populations at every life stage,” Enticknap said. “We know that the salmon need cold and clean freshwater for spawning and for growth, and that climate change and this megadrought have decreased water flows and increased river temperatures in a way that’s lethal for salmon.”
The US Bureau of Reclamation, which controls some of the dams in the Klamath River, announced in February that it would cut flows on the river due to historic lows from the drought, prompting concerns it would kill salmon further downstream.
“There’s a lot at stake with the Pacific salmon in the West; they’ve been so important to communities as a source of food, and when that’s at risk, those communities and cultures are at risk,” Enticknap added. “There’s also so many species of wildlife that depend on healthy populations. They’re the backbone of the ecosystem here.”
‘Communities and cultures at risk’
The $1.4 billion salmon fishing industry provides 23,000 jobs to California’s economy, and businesses that rely on large salmon populations have been particularly devastated, according to the Golden State Salmon Association.
“When someone catches a salmon, it’s really an emotional experience because the fish is so magnificent,” Andy Guiliano, a 59-year-old owner of a charter boat company, told CNN. “People really have a connection with the salmon.”
In the past 52 years, the family-owned business Fish Emeryville has chartered patrons to fish for chinook salmon. Guiliano said salmon fishing is what reels in roughly 50% of the business’ revenue.
During the ban, Guiliano said, he and other fishermen would have to make do with other fish, though he emphasized that nothing can compete with the revenue that salmon brings in.
“It’s a poor second tier. It won’t sustain the amount of effort and it is not a replacement,” Guiliano said. “We might get 10 to 15 % [of business] back.”
While the megadrought largely contributed to the downfall in salmon numbers, some fishing groups blame the way California distributes its water.
“The shutdown we are seeing now is completely avoidable,” said John McManus, the senior policy director of the Golden State Salmon Association. “Decisions made during the drought deprived salmon of the water that they need to survive. By doing so, they took away our livelihood.”
Jordan Traverso, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said water management is part of the salmon strategy. But Traverso argues that water policy in California is much more complex, underscoring concerns with regards to agriculture and pointing to the rapidly warming climate.
“Recent decisions about agriculture aren’t the reason for low numbers because these fish are returning from the ocean voyage as part of their journey,” Traverso told CNN. “Climate disruption is causing strings of dry years and hotter temperatures, shrinking salmon habitat and eliminating the space for them to rebound.”
The rivers in the middle of California are largely diverted to agriculture. The result is that these rivers are not cold enough for salmon to reproduce and not high enough to help baby salmon swim back to the ocean.
“We have major issues with barriers to passage in their historic habitat, with dams preventing them from utilizing hundreds of miles of it,” Traverso said.
The chain reaction from the announcement has already affected a huge swath of business, from bait shops to restaurants that put salmon on the table.
“San Francisco is all about the two iconic California fisheries, which are Dungeness crab and our local king salmon,” Joe Conte, owner of Water2Table, a fish distribution company, told CNN. He said he has been delivering to some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area for more than a decade.
“It’s disastrous for the fishermen and for us on the pier,” Conte added.
To meet needs, fishermen can dip into other species, but they run the risk of depleting those populations as well, as they did in 2008.
“We know exactly what’s going to happen,” Guiliano said. “We saw an enormous amount of effort on the California halibut inside of San Francisco Bay. And then there was four or five years following where the fishery was really poor.”
Up north in the Klamath River basin, the impact is taking an additional emotional and cultural toll on Native Americans. The Karuk, Hoop and Yurok tribes, in particular, have long fished for the chinook for subsistence. Other fish along the basin like the two endangered native suckerfish – the C’waam and Koptu – are also under threat.
While some tribes have set their own catch limits, others have made the tough decision to stop their hunting and fishing in hopes of the species’ recovery.
But as planet-warming pollution rises in the atmosphere, the impacts on biodiversity are ubiquitous. Without salmon, which are a keystone species, other wildlife that depend on it will suffer.
Last month, the West Coast fishery managers held a public hearing to allow stakeholders to comment on the proposed cancellation.
What’s surprising, experts say, is that many fishermen support the closure to save the dwindling salmon population, noting that they need every fish to come back to the river.
“One striking thing is that the fishing community – the commercial fleet and recreational fishing groups – have largely supported the closure of the salmon season,” Milstein said. “That has been apparent in the public comments at the council and elsewhere. They argue that they should not be fishing when the stocks have declined to this level.”
On the Klamath River, salmon recovery efforts are underway. After a decadeslong campaign by tribal organizers, the federal government in 2022 approved the removal of four dams there. The first dam is set to come down this summer; the rest will be removed by 2024.
And there are also “hopeful” signs of rebound, Enticknap said. The recent barrage of storms that pummeled the West has replenished drought-stricken rivers and reservoirs and alleviated arid conditions in California, providing somewhat of a relief for fisheries.
“We’re hoping that this is going to help salmon populations get back on track and that it’s not an anomaly – in that, this happens once and then we slip back into a drought,” Enticknap added. “My concern right now is that with climate change we’re expecting hotter conditions and more drought and marine heatwaves, where it’s ultimately worse for salmon.”
Despite the recent onslaught of rain and snow, advocates say they need federal and state officials to implement fair water allocations, since the fishing industry would have to compete with larger California markets like agriculture for the same water supply.
Although Bates says she is still digesting the new reality they’re facing, she remains hopeful.
“Don’t waste a crisis, right?” Bates said. “This is a forced opportunity, but it is an opportunity nonetheless, to fix some things that have been broken in California for a long time … so I am somewhat optimistic that this is not the end. It’s just a chapter in the middle.”