On Monday (May 29), three Sausalito party boats carrying 55 fishermen caught just 20 salmon, the largest weighing 22 pounds. Fishing, indeed, is anything but hot.
But local salmon fishermen bummed by lousy fishing may have a good season or two to anticipate in the coming years. That’s because a fishery advocate group released more than a million finger-sized Chinook smolts into San Francisco Bay at Fort Baker last week and about a million more at coastal locations farther south.
Releasing the fish, which were born in Central Valley hatcheries, in or very near the ocean dramatically increases their odds of surviving to adulthood — when they will be big enough to catch and eat.
“We’ve only seen a one percent or less survival rate in the fish we release (near Vallejo),” said Jim Anderson, a commercial fisherman in Half Moon Bay and a director of the California Salmon Stamp Committee, which has been overseeing the release program.
Anderson said the Fort Baker releases have come in conjunction with similar releases in Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. All told, Anderson’s committee has released 2.32 million salmon smolts this year.
“We’re hoping for a four-percent survival rate,” he said. “There are good ocean conditions out there, and a lot of krill.”
By combining the eggs and sperm of wild salmon, managers of Central Valley fish hatcheries produce millions of juvenile salmon each year and release them into either the river system, the Delta, San Francisco Bay or the ocean. The trouble with releasing the fish upstream of the Delta is that the young salmon are faced with high odds of being eaten by predators or being sucked off their migration course by powerful irrigation pumps.
Anderson said even releasing young salmon into San Francisco Bay — downstream of the dangerous Delta but still miles from the ocean — leads to high mortality rates and low adult returns.
“That’s because there are a lot of striped bass between Vallejo and the Golden Gate,” he said.
In the best of outcomes, the fish released this year by the Salmon Stamp Committee could mean 100,000 or more adult salmon in the ocean two and three years from now. Additionally, salmon born naturally in rivers as well as many millions more hatchery fish that are released in the river system will contribute to the future salmon population. In a decent year, there may be one million adult Chinook salmon swimming off the coast of California.
But once upon a time, between one and two million adult salmon returned every year to spawn in the Central Valley rivers. That means the population of fish in the ocean, which consists of several year classes, was probably consistently in the ten million range, or thereabouts.
This year, there are only several hundred thousand salmon estimated by biologists to be in coastal ocean waters. This low figure, which has resulted in a highly restricted fishing season — not to mention fairly slow fishing — is the grim outcome of a variety of environmental stressors including drought, agricultural demand for river water, and poor river management by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In multiple years the Bureau of Reclamation has released so much water so quickly from Lake Shasta that salmon in the river downstream did not have enough cold water to spawn in during the summer.
So, the hatchery system, combined with vehicle transport downstream, serves as a critical life support system for a salmon population that, sadly, can probably not survive on its own. Biologists argue that hatcheries produce genetically inferior fish that weaken wild strains when they intermingle at spawning time. However, fishermen depend on hatcheries, since without them there would be no almost no fish to catch.
From this perspective, releasing the salmon into the Bay and ocean is the perfect solution: Because the fish are released directly into saltwater, they tend to lack the instinctive urge to swim up a river when they mature. This means they will provide a source of food, income and recreation for local fishermen while not interrupting the delicate upriver spawning activities of California’s wild, self-sustaining salmon runs, which are barely clinging to existence.
“Ideally, our rivers would run more naturally, which would allow salmon to come and go to the spawning grounds like they used to,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a group which advocates for river conservation as well as hatchery operations. “But in years when they don’t, which is most, transporting and releasing baby salmon closer to the ocean has proven a great benefit to salmon fishing families, communities and businesses.”