By Rachel Tennenbaum
The commercial salmon season will begin on May 1, and fishermen are breathing more easily. The California Department of Fish and Game has relaxed restrictions on this year’s sport and commercial seasons, in stark contrast to last year. Only one question remains: where are the salmon?
The Chinook salmon is the fish of the season, a big-river fish that can weigh up to 50 pounds. Chinook salmon spawn in the Klamath and Sacramento rivers, as well as in streams all over the San Joaquin Valley.
In 2006, the Klamath government diverted water from the Upper Klamath Basin to use for irrigation, leaving the Chinook population with too little water to spawn. This was a devastating blow to salmon and salmon fishermen.
Dr. Bruce MacFarlane, a research fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commented that current water supplies cause a struggle for adequate resources, both for farmers and fish.
“Science can only do so much. It’s a choice,” explained MacFarlane. “Do we want to grow cotton in the San Joaquin Valley or have a healthy salmon population?”
This year, scientists jumped to remedy last year’s mistakes. Restrictions were in place throughout the commercial fishing season in 2006, allowing boats to catch only 75 fish a week. Salmon production hatcheries also opened, producing up to 60 million salmon per year, of which only one or two percent will survive. Conservation hatcheries have also opened throughout the rest of California.
With the hatcheries and fishing restrictions this year, the California Department of Fish and Game has decided that Chinook populations are stable enough to fish.
Sports fishermen are allowed to catch only two Chinook each per day, and each fish must be a minimum of 20 inches long. Salmon must be a minimum of 27 inches in May and June for commercial fishermen, and 28 inches in August and September.
Harry Morse, the public information officer for California’s Fish and Game Department, explained that department members create restrictions based on research.
“According to initial sampling, salmon runs and ocean conditions are better than last year,” Morse said. “We’ll have to wait and see how the season goes.”
Scientists are also keeping a close eye on fish populations. Although it is impossible to know where in the ocean salmon are, new technology can identify from which stream the salmon originally came.
By taking tissue from the fish, scientists can determine the origins of Santa Cruz’s salmon. Based on findings, they can then tell fishermen to fish in certain locations. Through this science-guided fishing, scientists hope to help protect the different fragile populations.
Commercial fishermen are still reeling from the impact of last year’s restrictions. Leo Morelli, a commercial fisherman and owner of Leo’s Sport Fishing and Marine Supplies in the Santa Cruz Harbor, understood that these measures were necessary.
“If we take from nature, then nature will not produce,” Morelli said. “Last year I caught six fish commercially. I was allowed 75. Who can survive? … If the farmers have a bad season they receive money from the government, but the same is not true for the commercial fishermen.”
Sport salmon season has also been off to a very slow start — not a good sign for the commercial fishermen who have hung on since last year. But the season is still early, and it is impossible to predict how it will shape up.
The salmon population has been so affected that chances for a full recovery are slim. It is now merely a question of balance.
“On an absolute scale, we can never say that the salmon population is doing well,” MacFarlane said. “We can only say it’s doing well given the habitat.”