With record low runs forecasted, the commercial and recreational ocean Chinook salmon fishing seasons in the Klamath Management Zone (KMZ) from Southern Oregon to north of Shelter Cove will be closed this season.
The in-river Klamath tribal fishery will also be heavily restricted, with the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes sharing allocations that only number in the hundreds of fish.
Ocean salmon abundance is expected to be so low this year that the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the agency which sets season times and area catch limits, is considering a statewide closure of the commercial Chinook salmon season.
Rainfall is far above average now but that won’t help the salmon that were hatching three years ago. Drought was peaking, water temperatures rose and low flows impacted migration to the ocean.
In the lower Klamath River, the low flows and high water temperatures also promoted parasitic infection and disease.
The juvenile salmon that made it out of the river systems were met with additional challenges, as ocean water temperatures were also above normal, a situation that has only recently let up.
The PFMC approved a range of West Coast salmon season alternatives on March 13. A PFMC press release issued the same day stated that “drought, disease, poor ocean conditions and other issues” are expected to reduce Klamath River Chinook salmon returns to a record low level.
Klamath ocean salmon abundance is estimated at 54,200 fish, one-third of last year’s forecast. “It is the lowest forecast we’ve seen for this stock,” said Mike Burner, the PFMC’s deputy director.
The bleak forecasts have triggered a PFMC policy that focuses on getting as many salmon as possible to their spawning grounds. Burner said that the council still strives for balance by mixing and matching various alternatives.
A coastwide fishing closure “isn’t likely” said Burner, but he added that it’s “difficult to predict – this is a pretty dire situation and I wouldn’t put it outside of possibility that the council takes a pretty conservative approach this year, as we are in unprecedented territory.”
This winter’s abundant rainfall and snowpack will boost river flows and improve conditions for out-river migration.
“Salmon can turn around quickly if conditions turn around,” Burner said, adding even a relatively small number of juveniles can lead to good return levels if ocean conditions are favorable.
But it will take time for those positive effects to translate into improved salmon returns and for another two to three years, drought impacts will affect runs.
“I would expect that we’re looking at a few broods here, that either due to drought or recent marine conditions, we’ll probably continue to see some depression of their returns,” said Burner. “So there will be a lag but I would think that with relaxation of drought conditions, things can only be going in the right direction.”
Until things improve, fishing restrictions will be effected.
In the Fort Bragg area from Shelter Cove to Point Arena, the only commercial fishing option is for September and a complete closure is on the table. Recreational fishing alternatives in that area are also restricted compared to previous years.
Returns of endangered winter run Sacramento River Chinook are also expected to be low and restrictions will be in effect south of Point Arena.
The PFMC will hold a series of public hearings on the alternatives and approve a final West Coast salmon season on April 11. The National Marine Fisheries Service will issue definitive approval by May 1.