Both the commercial and recreational salmon fleets in California will likely remain stuck in port this year following the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s decision to cancel the 2023 fishing season.

Three years of drought, low river levels and hot, dry conditions have had punishing effects on the Klamath and Sacramento River’s fall-run Chinook salmon populations, according to state wildlife officials.

In response to drastic fish population declines, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) — which regulates fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington — canceled the salmon season from the Oregon border to Mexico.

“The forecasts for Chinook returning to California rivers this year are near record lows,” said PFMC chair Marc Gorelnik.

“The poor conditions in the freshwater environment that contributed to these low forecasted returns are unfortunately not something that the council can, or has authority to, control,” Gorelnik said.

The decision to close the season must still be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to do so in May.

Fishing for federal relief

Also on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state is asking U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to issue a Federal Fishery Disaster Declaration in order to provide assistance to fishing boat operators, coastal communities and others that rely on the salmon season for income.

“Countless families, coastal communities and tribal nations depend on salmon fishing — it’s more than an industry, it’s a way of life. That’s why we’re requesting expedited relief from the federal government,” Newsom said in a news release.

An industry group, the Golden State Salmon Association, said the state’s commercial and recreational salmon fisheries account for $1.4 billion in economic activity and include fishermen and women, fish processors, marinas, equipment manufacturers, Native American tribes and people in the hotel and food industries, among others.

The decision to close the season, which has only happened once before, doesn’t sit well with the association’s executive director, Scott Artis. His organization, along with other environmental groups, blames California’s land-use and water-management policies that he says favor agriculture over salmon.

“This is a direct reflection on California’s water policy and an absolutely devastating blow for the thousands of families that rely on salmon to pay their rent and mortgages, and keep their life-sustaining businesses afloat,” Artis said.

In a news release, the association said “dam operation decisions favoring agriculture over salmon survival have resulted in very poor natural salmon reproduction in recent years because lethal hot water left after dam releases for agriculture have killed incubating salmon eggs.”

That claim was echoed by the environmental advocacy organization San Francisco Baykeeper, which said the Newsom administration has waived requirements for dam operators to provide enough cold water for salmon egg incubation.

“Gov. Newsom has preferred to appease privileged water districts at the expense of our rivers and San Francisco Bay,” said SF Baykeeper science director Jon Rosenfield. “If he stays on this course, salmon fisheries will remain closed and San Francisco Bay’s six endangered fish species will continue to slide towards extinction.”

‘Navigating solutions’

Newsom has disputed the idea that the state’s water policies have led to the current predicament and at a March 24 news conference — during which he signed an order eliminating some drought restrictions — he noted that the conditions that led to the season closure happened three years ago.

“Anyone who suggests otherwise is being purposefully misleading or unknowingly misleading,” Newsom said. “I think it’s more of the former, often.”

Because salmon swim from their freshwater hatcheries to the ocean after they’re born and then return three years later to spawn, recent water management decisions are not to blame for the plummeting salmon populations, said California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jordan Traverso.

“Rather, the drought conditions we were experiencing three years ago made their journey perilous. That’s what affected these numbers,” Traverso said.

“We are always navigating solutions that take all (water) uses into account, and we are always working toward restoration of salmon populations,” he said.

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