King Salmon Crash: Fishery Expected to Close in CA, ORE

In response to a huge crash in the numbers of spawning chinook (king) salmon this fall, Federal and state officials are for the first time expected to disallow or severely restrict salmon fishing in Oregon and Northern California and off the coast, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper looks at this mostly in terms of government action and economic harm, but one could just as well highlight the fact that this year only 7.5% of what once was a healthy number of fish came up the Sacramento River this fall to spawn, down from 800,000 six years ago down to about 60,000 now.

That number is not sustainable, the experts say.

Federal scientists blame the anemic returns on a variety of factors,
but have focused on poor ocean conditions, potentially linked to global
warming, that have caused the chinook’s food sources to plummet.

But anglers also blame troubles in the environmentally fragile
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where fish populations have plummeted
because of pollution, predators and increased water exports to the

The news coverage on the salmon crash from the Portland Oregonian was less bluntly stated, but the message was the same.

Steve Williams, assistant fish division administrator at the
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he could not
recall another instance where salmon declines were as stark
and widespread along so many West Coast rivers at once.

"It’s somewhat unprecedented to see this extent of
impact," he said.

A New York Times account dug into the possibilities, but came no real conclusion.

Bill Petersen, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s research center in Newport, Ore., said
other stocks of anadromous Pacific fish — those that migrate from
freshwater to saltwater and back — had been anemic this year, leading
him to suspect ocean changes.

After studying changes in the
once-predictable pattern of the Northern Pacific climate, Mr. Petersen
found that in 2005 the currents that rise from the deeper ocean,
bringing with them nutrients like phytoplankton and krill, were out of
sync. “Upwelling usually starts in April and goes until September,” he
said. “In 2005, it didn’t start until July.”

Mr. Petersen’s
hypothesis about the salmon is that “the fish that went to sea in 2005
died a few weeks after getting to the ocean” because there was nothing
to eat. A couple of years earlier, when the oceans were in a
cold-weather cycle, the opposite happened — the upwelling was very
rich. The smolts of that year were later part of the largest run of
fall Chinook ever recorded.

Hmmmm. Seems to me if you’re going to link a die-off to a change in ocean conditions, you need to talk about what is happening in the ocean and why it’s happening — otherwise, why bother? But the Knight Journalism Science Tracker has a different view, and helpfully provides all sorts of links. Take a look.

BACKGROUND: A little over a decade ago, based on observations of huge temperature swings in the Gulf of Alaska, linked to shifts in fish population, University of Washington researchers identified a phenomenon now  known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

[In one oscillation] warm PDO phases
have favored high salmon production in Alaska and low salmon production
off the west coast of California, Oregon, and Washington states. Conversely,
cool PDO eras have favored low salmon production in Alaska and relatively
high salmon production for California, Oregon, and Washington (Hare 1996,
Hare et al. 1999).

Warm phases of PDO are correlated with El Niño-like North
American temperature and precipitation anomalies, while cool phases of
PDO are correlated with La Niña-like climate patterns.

Okay, but according to NOAA, we’re in a strong La Nina condition right now.

The most recent dynamical and statistical SST forecasts for the Niño 3.4 region continue to indicate a moderate-to-strong La Niña through March 2008, and a weaker La Niña through April-May-June 2008 (Fig. 5). Thereafter, there is considerable spread in the forecasts, with approximately one-half indicating that La Niña could continue into the Northern Hemisphere fall.Current atmospheric and oceanic conditions and recent observed trends support the likely continuation of La Niña through the Northern Hemisphere spring 2008.

Is this what they mean by "unprecedented?" We’re in a cool PDO/La Nina condition which should lead to "relatively high" numbers of salmon spawning on the West Coast, but instead they’re crashing?

And if this is the case, why don’t these papers tells us?


In any case, the upshot for the fishery this year is clear. Dick Pool, of Water for Fish, put it bluntly:

"2008 and 2009 are toast as
fishing seasons."

UPDATE: According to an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times by Carl Pope, who for decades has been at the helm of the Sierra Club, global warming is known to threaten the survival of the salmon on the West Coast. Also known is the fact that a solution exists — to make sure the salmon can migrate to their paradisaical grounds in the mountains of Idaho. Pope writes:

Scientists believe the salmon that spawn in this place likely have the
best chance of any salmon populations in the Lower 48 states to adapt
to, and thus survive, global warming. This habitat, nearly all above
4,000 feet in elevation, will stay cool even as temperatures rise in
other areas. It will give salmon the firmest footing from which to
self-adapt in the face of warming. And because the area is already
protected as wilderness and public land, it is likely to face less
development pressure and could offer refuge for years to come.

In the face of the great flood, Noah had to build an ark, but this one
comes already made. All we need to do is help the salmon get there.

heart of the refuge lies in the Salmon River Mountains high above the
Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. But the route between
the ocean and the spawning ground — the ark — is choked by eight
dams, which kill up to 90% of the area’s native salmon as they journey
out to sea and back again.

I’m glad the opinion section published the piece, and I’ll look into the issue further. But it pisses me off that I learned so little about this issue from news stories in three or four separate newspapers.



Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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