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California salmon fishing banned for second year in row

Fishing boats docked at the marina at Humboldt Bay in Eureka on June 6, 2023.
Larry Valenzuela
CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Fishing boats docked at the marina at Humboldt Bay in Eureka on June 6, 2023.

Federal officials moved to cancel commercial and recreational salmon fishing off California as the fish still aren’t thriving.

In a devastating blow to California’s fishing industry, federal fishery managers unanimously voted today to cancel all commercial and recreational salmon fishing off the coast of California for the second year in a row.

The decision is designed to protect California’s dwindling salmon populations after drought and water diversions left river flows too warm and sluggish for the state’s iconic Chinook salmon to thrive.

Salmon abundance forecasts for the year “are just too low,” Marci Yaremko, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s appointee to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, said last week. “While the rainfall and the snowpacks have improved, the stocks and their habitats just need another year to recover.”

State and federal agencies are now expected to implement the closures for ocean fishing. Had the season not been in question again this year, recreational boats would likely already be fishing off the coast of California, while the commercial season typically runs from May through October.

In addition, the California Fish and Game Commission will decide next month whether to cancel inland salmon fishing in California rivers this summer and fall.

The closure means that California restaurants and consumers will have to look elsewhere for salmon, in a major blow to an industry estimated in previous years to be worth roughly half a billion dollars.

“It’s catastrophic,” said Tommy “TF” Graham, a commercial fisherman based in Bodega Bay who now drives a truck delivering frozen and farmed salmon and other fish. “It means another summer of being forced to do something you don’t want to do, instead of doing something you love.”

About 213,600 Sacramento River fall-run salmon — a mainstay of the fishery — are estimated to be swimming off the coast. Though that’s an improvement over last year, the forecast remains the second-lowest on record since the fishery was closed in 2008 and 2009, Yaremko told the Pacific fishery council.

The numbers this year, plus the fact that the forecasts for salmon returning to spawn are routinely overestimated, “add concern,” Yaremko said.

Many in the fishing industry say they support the closure, but urged state and federal officials to do more to improve conditions in the rivers salmon rely on. Fishing advocates and environmentalists have lambasted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration for failing to prioritize water quality and flows to protect salmon in the vital Bay-Delta watershed.

“Our fishing fleets and coastal communities can not be the only ones making sacrifices to save these fish,” said Sarah Bates, who owns a commercial fishing boat called the Bounty, berthed at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. “Water policy needs to take the health of our river ecosystems seriously.”

The closure comes as the fishing industry still awaits disaster aid promised from last year’s salmon fishery closures, which state officials estimated to have cost about $45 million. The fishing industry says that’s a vast underestimate.

“Some fishermen have already lost their businesses and many will in the coming months,” said RJ Waldron, who runs a charter fishing business out of the East Bay. Last year’s closure dried up his customers, and he put his sportfishing boat up for sale months ago.

“My dream of being a charter boat owner is very much a nightmare now.”