The State of California has committed to a policy of protecting wild runs of its Chinook salmon. It’s reflected in both State law, in the Delta Reform Act, and in State policy, including the State Board’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan and Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan. The State implements salmon policy by imposing considerable restrictions on the agencies that supply water to residents, businesses, and farmers across much of California at a cost that runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Yet this year returns of wild spring-run Chinook salmon from the ocean were vanishingly small. State officials report that fewer than 25 returning adults were recorded in two of the three remaining upper Central Valley streams that feed the Sacramento River and still support independent spring-run Chinook populations.
How could this happen? There is no single explanation. But ironically, certain elements on the State’s salmon-management agenda appear to be leading causes of harm to wild runs of Chinook. Those policies could push one or more of those wild runs past the brink of extinction. Just weeks before announcing the dire situation faced by wild spring-run Chinook salmon, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sent out a press release announcing that the agency had released 23 million hatchery-bred fall-run salmon. Those hatchery salmon will compete with wild salmon for waning natural resources and habitat. And, when they return to spawn, they will have adverse effects on the fitness of wild salmon — decreasing their ability to spawn and rear successfully in the natural environment.
Most hatcheries nationally have developed hatchery genetic management plans, HGMPs, to address some of the harmful effects that hatchery fish can have on their wild counterparts. And many hatchery operators in other states have approached the federal wildlife agencies to secure authorization to operate their facilities consistent with the federal Endangered Species Act. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has done neither. Instead, they are swamping ocean and freshwater habitats with hatchery fall-run Chinook salmon at a time when wild spring-run and winter-run Chinook salmon are at immediate risk of extinction.
California state policy authorizing the Chinook salmon ocean fishery likewise has been harming wild Chinook salmon. The commercial and recreational fishing is intended to target hatchery fall-run Chinook salmon produced at federal and state hatcheries. But fishermen cannot distinguish between hatchery Chinook salmon and those protected under the federal and California Endangered Species Acts. As a consequence, protected wild spring-run and winter-run Chinook salmon are harvested for all intents and purposes as bycatch. Elsewhere north along the Pacific Coast, regulators and hatchery operators have sought to mitigate this impact by clipping a fin on each hatchery fish to be released, which allows harvesters to easily differentiate between hatchery and wild fish, and then return the wild fish to the ocean. California hatcheries do not do so.
Rates of Chinook salmon ocean harvest — referred to as fishery exploitation rates — in fisheries to the north of California are substantially lesser than the rate of salmon harvest off of California. Spring-run salmon from Oregon’s Willamette River and spring-run from Alaska’s rivers were exploited by ocean fisheries last year at 10 and 30 percent, respectively. In contrast, California’s 2022 ocean fisheries caught an estimated 75 percent of would-be fall-run spawners. This is well above any other Chinook salmon ocean fishery on the West Coast. That intense fishing pressure is not limited to hatchery fish, of course; rather, it leads to greater impacts on wild Chinook salmon too. The consequences for ESA-listed Chinook salmon are not well monitored, but available information suggests that California’s fishery management regime is out-of-step with the scale of its impacts on California’s increasingly imperiled wild salmon.
State policy adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission is harming wild Chinook salmon populations as well. The Commission adopts sport-fishing regulations to limit fishing for non-native striped bass and black bass in an effort to increase the populations of these two voracious predators. The two bass species frequently prey on juvenile wild Chinook salmon. Both the National Marine Fisheries Service and stakeholder advocates for greater protections for salmon have pleaded with the Fish and Game Commission to rescind limits on striped bass sport-fishing in order to contribute to the protection of wild Chinook salmon. The Commission has denied those requests despite the fact that the rate of survival of juvenile wild Chinook salmon during their migration to and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is less than five percent, and in-river predation by striped bass certainly is responsible for a significant proportion of those excessive losses. And on top of that, sport-fishing interests have petitioned for and are currently advocating for further limits on striped bass harvest for the express purpose of increasing the population of that non-native predator. Unfortunately, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has failed to recommend that the Commission reject that petition.
As currently being implemented, California salmon-management policy is contradictory and indefensible. Significant resources are being expended on actions that both and harm our state’s wild Chinook salmon runs. Current hatchery operations, ocean salmon fishery practices, and non-native predatory fish regulations all undermine the goals established by State law intended to enhance natural production of salmon. Governor Newsom has an opportunity to align State policy and benefit our salmon now and into the future. His actions need not shut down the State’s salmon hatcheries, nor shutter the salmon fishery, nor eliminate the regulation of striped bass and black bass fishing. But thoughtful policy changes in each of those areas could readily lead to a more coherent, consistent, and rational salmon-management policy. Surely that is not too much to ask for.