Salmon fishing season on Central Valley rivers opens today for recreational anglers. This year is considered to be the first normal season since an unprecedented crash in the fall-run chinook salmon population began in 2007. The fishing season was closed in 2008 and 2009.
State and federal officials estimate more than 800,000 adult chinook salmon will make the spawning run into the Sacramento River and its tributaries this year, a huge improvement from the historic low of about 40,000 salmon in 2009.
The Bee talked with Stafford Lehr, fisheries branch chief at the California Department of Fish and Game.
How healthy is the fall run this year?
It's expected to be very healthy. The ocean harvest (which began in April) has been very good, when the boats can get out. The winds have limited when they are able to get out. But all indications are that when they can get out there, the fishing is very good. That translates into an expectation that numbers in Central Valley streams will be pretty close to the estimate.
What is open to fishing on the rivers compared to recent years?
Pretty much everything on the Sacramento, Feather, American and Mokelumne rivers. Exceptions include a small area upstream of the Thermalito outfall on the Feather River, which we closed due to vandalism of fencing and other structures. The Mokelumne River is open to fishing this year; it was closed last year.
Most areas are open well into December, but there are exceptions, so people should know the regulations. The daily bag and possession limits are back to normal at two salmon per person.
The take-home message is: We're expecting a full salmon season with large numbers of fish in the river systems.
How did we get back to these numbers from such dramatic lows just three years ago?
There were good outflow conditions in the rivers last year, and the previous year was OK. And the ocean conditions improved significantly, which increased food availability and adult survival out in the ocean. That promotes a good, healthy population estimate.
Is there any debate still about what caused the population decline?
Among federal and state fishery managers, there's a consensus that it was ocean conditions – very poor ocean conditions – that did not produce enough food for adult salmon. Looking back at the water-year types, yes, there were some dry periods for outflow and temperature issues in the river systems. But I think it's been primarily linked to ocean conditions.
What's the outlook for next year's spawning population?
We continue to seek to improve both the quality and quantity of habitat downstream of the dams. There are programs under way to restore spawning access above some of the dams. In a couple of years, our new hatchery tagging programs will tell us more than we've ever known about the health of the population.
However, if this upcoming winter of 2012-2013 is dry, I think the red flags will be going up. It really does get down to flow issues. Given all the constraints (on water supply), people are doing the best job they can to manage flows and temperatures. With the capital and everything invested over the last decade, there have been improvements. There's still a long ways to go, though.
Why all this effort for salmon? Why are these fish so important?
The Central Valley salmon run is a heritage, legacy resource for the people of the state of California. It is a bellwether for the condition of the aquatic ecosystem. The Central Valley river system is the primary driver for the ocean commercial and recreational salmon season. It's important for those coastal economies and the Central Valley economies to maintain and sustain these fisheries. There's an economic benefit, there's a cultural benefit and then there's the environmental benefits.