California wild salmon’s survival rests on water politics

Robbie Torrise, owner of Robbie’s Seafood in Monterey, shows off a farm-raised salmon. While he prefers locally caught, the limited supply has forced him to find other sources.
Robbie Torrise, owner of Robbie’s Seafood in Monterey, shows off a farm-raised salmon. While he prefers locally caught, the limited supply has forced him to find other sources.

It’s a relationship that’s lasted more than 14,000 years: humans and wild salmon, a pairing of man and fish that goes far beyond predator and prey, but impacts nearly every part of the global ecosystem.

Here’s the history: Along the Pacific Coast, natives harvested thousands of adult salmon each fall from their spawning grounds in local rivers and streams, a catch that fed their families throughout the year.

And here’s the present: While many cultures in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are deeply wedded to the salmon resource, California’s grasp has grown increasingly slippery, with only a small percentage of its historical natural breeding population remaining.

Salmon’s legacy for Californians goes beyond the money brought to port, or its classification as one of the most nutritious foods in the world: The fish also provide vital transfer of nutrients and energy from the ocean back to the freshwater ecosystems where they were born.

Studies have identified ocean-derived nutrients from salmon in dozens of different species, like kingfishers or water ouzels, fish-eating ducks, foxes, raccoons, coyotes – all the way up to the big predators that used to live here but are gone, like grizzly bears.

Accumulating 95 percent of their biomass at sea, adult Pacific salmon die after they spawn, and their nutrient-rich carcasses, gametes (mature eggs and sperm) and metabolical waste return to the land. “It’s fascinating that, over the eons, a lot of fertilizer was provided by these dead salmon, so a lot of the wine grapes and a lot of the agriculture inland by the rivers was fertilized by salmon for a long time,” says Randy Repass, founder of West Marine and a member of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), a coalition of salmon advocates.

Salmon’s yearly return props up an entire food web, replenishing bacteria and algae, bugs and small fish, and fueling plant growth with deposits of nitrogen and phosphorus.

“There are lots of studies that find salmon’s ocean-derived nutrients in trees that grow along productive salmon watersheds,” says Nate Mantua, a research scientist for NOAA’s Southwest Fishery Science Center in Santa Cruz. “And where we’ve depleted the natural runs of salmon, we’ve really degraded that connection.”

That’s the future that scientists and advocates are now so desperately trying to turn around.

Damming a Species

The largest salmon known to man – with adults often exceeding 40 pounds, and capable of growing to 120 pounds – the chinook (aka king) salmon is the pride and joy of California’s salmon fishery. Not long ago, the Central Valley watershed was one of the biggest producers of naturally breeding chinook salmon in the world, second only to the Columbia River, with the Klamath River another big California contributor. Driven by the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, the Central Valley nursed a ballpark average of a few million salmon per year, emerging each spring out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Today, natural production, maybe in a good year, is in the hundred thousand or hundreds of thousands,” Mantua says. “So, yeah, it’s a few percent of the historical population.”

In addition to cold ocean water and an ample food supply at sea, salmon require cold river water that drains all the way to the sea, and, during their early life, a delta habitat. Salmon eggs don’t survive in water warmer than 56 degrees, which is why adult fish ready to spawn instinctively head toward the cold, upper headwaters and tributaries coming out of the snow-packed mountains.

Development in the ’40s through ’60s, and especially the constructions of dams like the Shasta Dam, built in 1943 on the Sacramento River, played a key role in the near-annihilation of the long-standing fish stock. “When they built the big dams in California, they basically blocked off access to 80 or 90 percent of the habitat salmon historically used to reproduce in California,” says John McManus, executive director of the GGSA.

Fish ladders, which are like a staircase of pools that salmon can jump through to get over the dam and continue their journey upstream, were built on river dams in Oregon and Washington.

“Well, in California when they built dams, they didn’t put a ladder on a single one of them,” McManus says. The problem with building them now is that most of the dams in California are too massive.

“The dams that we have in California, a lot of them are in the 200-feet-plus range. Now, everybody is forced basically to get along in the valley floor, in whatever habitat’s left over,” McManus says. “It’s kind of a wonder they’re still alive. They’re clinging to existence.”

One solution being discussed on the Yuba and Sacramento rivers is a “trap and haul” plan, which would trap adult salmon who beat their heads against the base of the dams, and give them a ride up over the dam in an elevator, then trap and truck the baby salmon who come back down the river after they’re hatched.

But it’s expensive. One program that may begin at the Shasta Dam in two years is estimated to cost $16 million for the first three years.

California’s four salmon runs – fall, late-fall, winter and spring – are named for the time of year they return from the open ocean as adults, after about two to five years spent feasting on smaller fish and krill at sea, and back under the Golden Gate Bridge to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As of 1989, the winter run had joined the ranks of 130 other endangered and threatened marine species when it was listed as an endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Ten years later, the spring run was listed as threatened.

It’s the state’s numerous hatcheries, managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, that now propel the strongest fall run, which makes up the bulk of California’s fishery. Not to be confused with farmed salmon – a practice banned for salmon in California – and a far cry from the on-land GMO-raised salmon recently approved by the FDA and projected to hit supermarkets in two years. Hatcheries produce about 90 percent of chinook salmon caught in the ocean. But hatcheries are not invulnerable to drought conditions or massive habitat losses.

“When we have a really good fishing year out in the ocean, it’s because of two things,” says McManus. “We have a good contribution from natural spawning salmon coming out of the Central Valley, and we have a good contribution from the hatcheries.”

Feast or Famine

Just a few years ago, Monterey fishermen were catching chinook salmon just off the breakwater of Monterey Harbor, when the returning salmon were of a class that left the Sacramento River. Since then, local fishermen have had to travel further for a smaller catch.

“Last year was not good, not good at all,” says Mike Ricketts, an 80-year-old who still makes solo salmon trips out of Monterey, as he has for the past 40 years. “We’ve had very little water for fish to get out of the rivers, and the ocean conditions haven’t been great either.”

Ricketts has seen his fair share of ups and downs over his fishing career, but this year he worries he might not get much time at all to troll for salmon on his 34-foot fishing vessel Sea Hawk. After years of drought, California commercial salmon fishermen might only get the month of May to fish, pending discussions between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

While commercial fishermen might lack the advanced degrees of fishery managers, their livelihoods depend on their intimate knowledge of their prey. The chinook salmon landed in Monterey Bay aren’t traveling to local watersheds, but are headed to the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers, says Ricketts. The Salinas and Carmel Rivers have long been absent of salmon, he continues.

There are about 1,200 commercial salmon permits in California, but only 585 landed salmon in 2015. In Monterey Harbor there are roughly 50 permit holders, most doggedly pursuing their chosen livelihoods.

While the 1.18 million pounds of salmon caught in California in 2015 is down from the 3.79 million pounds caught in 2013, fishermen remember 2008 and 2009 when the fishery was completely closed. While most fishermen were able to weather that downturn, many had Dungeness crab to fall back on.

This year, while there likely won’t be a complete closure, the combo of a Dungeness crab fishery that never happened (because of high levels of domoic acid caused by warm ocean waters) and the lackluster salmon run predicted for this year will give many local fishermen the squeeze like never before.

“I’m old and all my equipment is paid for,” says Ricketts, who also fishes for Dungeness crab and albacore tuna. “But I’m afraid for the younger guys who still have boat payments.”

Robbie Torrise stands on Wharf II at the Monterey Harbor outside of his retail and wholesale fish market, Robbie’s Seafood. He’s been in the business for 36 years, both as a fisherman and a buyer. When his preferred Monterey salmon can’t be found, he buys from Fort Bragg or further north, and even buys farmed salmon from Chile or Canada to meet demand.

Torrise talks of the old timers like Ricketts who stubbornly grind it out, during both feast and famine. But he also sees a lot of younger fisherman who might go into construction and other trades just to make boat payments.

“They get discouraged and need to scramble to keep their operations going,” he says. “But fishing is their livelihoods, it’s in their hearts. They’ll do what they have to do to keep fishing.”

Last year salmon netted California fishermen just over $14 million, down from the record high of $23.6 million in 2013, according to a 2016 report by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. For the past five years, the average commercial troller caught $21,000 of chinook.

A 2009 report economic impact report on the California salmon industry estimated salmon fishing – both recreational and commercial­ – generated $1.4 billion in economic activity and employed 23,000 annually in 2004 and 2005.

“That money gets spread all over; it’s the guy at the fuel docks who’s getting money for fuel, it’s the guy at the boatyard who had to fix your boat, it’s the guy who sells the trailers, runs the harbor, fishing equipment,” says McManus.

About 60 percent of salmon caught in Washington and Oregon are Central Valley fish, he adds, so it’s not just our economy that gets hurt during bad fishing years.

“The fish are being killed in the Central Valley before they get a chance to get to the ocean,” says Greg Ambiel, who has fished salmon off Santa Cruz for 30 years. “If you follow the money, that’s who gets the water. It’s simple, just go look at the almond trees in the Central Valley.”

It’s true that a fairly drastic shift has occurred, with high-profit almond crops replacing raisin grapes and other less profitable crops in the Central Valley. The problem for salmon is that it takes a gallon of water to produce one almond – which is three times more water than it takes to produce a grape – according to a study published in 2011 at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Water demands for agriculture are a known contributor to an estimated 95-percent loss of salmon’s critical rearing ground in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Earlier this year, NOAA fish biologist Michael O’Farrell began calculating 2016 abundance forecasts for both the Sacramento and Klamath rivers and tributaries – based on data that includes the return of fish the previous fall. Each March, he reports the number to the PFMC, which sets the season in April.

“Where we’re at right now, we’ve come out of the very low abundance periods of 2008 and 2009, but we don’t know exactly what the returns are for this past year,” says O’Farrell. “There are some issues that we are monitoring with regard to the effects of drought and ocean conditions. It’s hard to say which way the population’s going to go at this point.”


Under ideal conditions, a hatchery will produce a lot more juvenile salmon smolts that are ready to go to the ocean from a single pair of parents than could be produced in the wild. In terms of wild: “Some of those eggs may not get fertilized, some are going to get preyed upon, some might not successfully hatch, and then once they hatch, the fry are going to be subject to lots of predation. So a lot of those fish end up getting eaten before they are big enough to go to sea,” says Mantua. “For a pair of natural spawning salmon, maybe in a really good year they’ll produce 50 or 100 smolts, but for a pair of spawning adults in a hatchery, they might produce 5,000.”

But drought can tip those odds considerably: For the past two years, 95 percent of winter-run salmon were killed off by low water levels and high temperatures in the Sacramento River, and 98 percent of salmon eggs perished in the Red Bluff area this year. The drought also left Lake Shasta at low levels. Such conditions that hurt the winter run are not good for the other runs either, McManus says.

Heavy rains not only raise river levels to help salmon down the river, they also raise water turbidity, which acts as a cloaking device against predators. The last year that happened was in the winter of 2010-2011, says McManus. “It started raining in October, and it didn’t really stop until June. So, in a situation like that, in spite of the dam, there’s so much water everywhere that it mimics the way it used to be in the good old days before the dams,” he says. “In situations like that, survival of the juvenile salmon is quite high.”

In 2014, to avoid high loss of baby salmon due to low, clear water conditions, the GGSA began encouraging all of the state’s hatcheries to truck their productions down to San Francisco Bay to release them safely. Of five major hatcheries, which collectively produce around 32 million juvenile salmon, says McManus, two were already trucking 100 percent of their production, and by 2015, GGSA had gotten the other three to also give their smolts a ride – which is expensive.

The biggest hatchery in the Central Valley is the Coleman Hatchery, near Redding, which is about 280 miles from the bay and produces 12.5 million juvenile salmon every year.

This means there could be a fairly good chunk of hatchery-produced salmon out in the ocean this year – and old enough to be fished – as a result of the 2014 trucking.

But while scientists and fishermen agree that trucking prompted an increase in survival, Steve Lindley, leader of the Fisheries Ecology Division at NOAA, says the practice is the only GGSA-backed idea that his lab does not agree with.

“We have serious concerns about the longterm consequences of those practices for the genetic integrity of the stock,” says Lindley. When salmon make their way down the river on their own, they use their sense of smell to memorize their way back. “When they’re trucked, the fish can’t find their way back to where they were born very accurately, and they end up going all over the place, and they interbreed with each other.”

Inbreeding is especially detrimental to endangered fish. “It causes fish to die before they can reproduce,” says John Carlos Garza, a research geneticist at NOAA. Garza, who was recently dubbed “The Fish Matchmaker” in the New York Times, is currently working to provide DNA-based elucidation of kin relationships to conservation hatcheries. In the wild, salmon are more likely to recognize close kin to avoid breeding with them.

“In the hatcheries, typically, it’s a haphazard process,” Garza says. “They’re sticking this big bucket into the tank, and taking whoever comes up first in line, first male, first female.”

The genetic markers involve a non-invasive fin clipping, and are especially important for small hatcheries. “It essentially adds back in the element of inbreeding avoidance that occurs in natural populations,” Garza adds.

Restoring Hope

While the Central Valley Improvement Act, passed in 1992, ambitiously hoped to double the number of salmon and steelhead trout in the Sacramento River basin over the past 22 years, they’ve fallen short. While their goal was to see 86,000 spring-run chinook salmon spawning in the Central Valley by 2012, the number was just 30,522. Federal officials cited obstacles such as drought, competing demands for water and lack of funding.

But Lindley points to success stories in Central Valley wetland restoration in places like Clear Creek and Butte Creek. “These shallow areas that are nurseries for salmon, those populations have done very well, even during the poor ocean and drought periods,” he says. “So it’s not a lost cause. But we do really need to address some of these habitat issues, and find a way to operate salmon hatcheries in a way that supports our fisheries without imperiling their long-term viability.”

The GGSA is also working with researchers at NOAA to identify areas of high predation along the river and delta, to try to restore some of the historic rearing areas where the fish can pick up weight and size and find refuge from predators.

Lindley thinks the California WaterFix plan is a step in the right direction. The $20 billion program would utilize pumps and tunnels under the delta that would allow water to be taken out more efficiently. In the current system, a large amount of freshwater is pumped into the delta during the summer months to keep saltwater out, which is not only a waste of water but creates a big lake-like environment for freshwater fish to eat juvenile salmon, says Lindley.

There has been success on the Columbia River since 2005, when water managers were required to begin opening the reservoirs every springtime, says McManus.

“It’s worked wonders. The salmon runs in the Columbia River have rebounded big time,” McManus says. “So, in California, if we had something like that we would see a real beneficial result, rapidly.”

Additional reporting contributed by Nick Rahaim.