The California Salmon Crisis


The Status of the California Salmon Runs and the California Salmon Industry

Executive Summary

This report covers the current critical status of the California Central Valley salmon runs and the commercial and recreational salmon industries of California and Oregon that derive their livelihoods from harvesting salmon.  The report also discusses some of actions that are needed by the State and Federal governments to bring the populations of these fish back to a sustainable level.  The salmon industry is asking for help and support to bring about the necessary changes. 

The salmon runs and the California salmon industry are both currently in very deep trouble.  The populations of the Central Valley fall-run fish that support the industry are at near all time lows.  The graphs in this report show the declines and the current status.  There are three primary factors that have caused the decline.  

  • The most significant one has been the California drought of 2012 through 2016.  High water temperatures in the upriver tributaries were lethal to 95% of the eggs incubating in the gravel.

  • Poor ocean conditions in the form of higher than normal temperatures also took a heavy toll on survival.

  • Last, the Central Valley Sacramento water delivery system destroyed millions of juvenile salmon by the way it was operated.  River and Delta flows that the fall-run juveniles needed for out-migration survival were not provided and investments in habitat changes that would have mitigated some of the flow problems were not made.

In 2015 and in 2016 the commercial salmon industry collapsed.  There were not enough fish in the ocean to support them.  Many of the fishermen have had to sell their boats to avoid bankruptcy.  Today, many of the boats are still for sale and there are no buyers.  Many of their families have gone to food lines to survive.  The coastal communities from Morro Bay to Crescent City are dying with them.  Marinas, service centers, retail stores, motels and restaurants all depend on the salmon industry for income.  

The Charter boat salmon fleet is close behind.  In normal years this fleet catches over 100,000 fish annually.    In 2015 the catch dropped to 37,441 and to 36,500 in 2016.  For most of the season the salmon were not there to catch,



We are now approaching the conditions that prevailed in 2008 and 2009 when the entire industry was shut down due to critically low populations.  At that time, there were 906 retail outlets selling salmon equipment.  It is estimated that at least 100 of them failed and we also lost hundreds of commercial boats.  This chart shows the steady declines in commercial landings from 1980 through 2016.

The commercial industry needs at least 200,000 harvestable salmon in the ocean to cover expenses and earn a profit.  Below 200,000 the fish are so spread out that it is not worth fishing.  The chart shows the recent unsatisfactory harvests.  2016 dropped to only 55,300 harvested fish.   

This sport fishing table shows the same pattern for the recreational ocean harvest.  Most of these fish are caught by the charter fleet operations out of Half Moon Bay, San Francisco Bay, Fort Bragg and Eureka.  In 2016, only 36,500 fish were caught.  When the fishing is not good, the charter customers stay home and the fleet faces losses.  The ocean abundance for 2017 and 2018 does not appear any better than 2016.  A number of the charter captains have given up and have their boats for sale. 

This table shows some of the larger salmon fishing and boating businesses that failed during the 2008 -2009 shutdown.  There were also a lot of commercial boats that permanently left the business.  Today, many more are at risk.

In 2008 and 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a salmon fishing disaster and the commercial and charter fishermen received federal compensation.  Today, they are receiving no help. When the industry is operating, it supports 23,000 jobs and generates $1.4 billion in economic benefits for the state.  When the ocean abundance is adequate, approximately 500,000 California residents fish for salmon annually.  Recently, thirty nine prominent chefs and restaurant owners in the Bay Area wrote a letter supporting the protection of the California salmon runs.  Several of them said salmon was the top choice on their menu.  This is strong evidence of public support and the industry now needs help in recovering these iconic fish.

This report is about the fall-run salmon because it has historically been the most abundant and has supported the salmon industry.  There are three other runs in the Central Valley but their populations are not high enough to support the industry.  They are the winter-run, the spring-run and the late fall-run.  The winter and spring-runs are listed under the Endangered Species Act as extinction risks.  All of the runs are now critically low.  The implications go far beyond the salmon industry.  Not only are the salmon a wholesome food source for the public but they are also a food source for many other ocean species.  Seals and sea lions in the ocean feed on salmon and they are now starving.  The same thing is true of the Southern Resident Killer whales that are already listed as endangered.  The biggest impacts are on the young of these species.  They are now often found dead and washed up on the beaches. 

Most of the California public is unaware of these problems.  Those that are aware strongly support bringing the salmon back.  It will ultimately be up to the public, the fish agencies, the water agencies and the political leaders that represent them, to decide if extinctions are to be avoided and if the salmon are to be recovered.        

The next two charts show the current status of the commercial industry and the serious risk it faces if changes are not made to improve survival.  The first chart shows a plot of the ocean abundance of the fall-run salmon.  Ocean abundance is the total number of surviving adult salmon that are in the ocean each year.  It is calculated by adding the number of fish that are harvested to the number that return to the Central Valley to spawn.   In 2002, there were 1,462,000 adult fall-run salmon in the ocean.  By 2009 there were only 43,778.  The winter of 2010-2011 was very wet and survival of the juveniles was high.  Three years later the ocean abundance hit a modern peak of 899,503 adults.  You can then see the red zone where there are not enough fish currently in the ocean to sustain the industry.  The outlook is currently bad and it is likely getting worse in the near term future.

In 2015, Water4Fish, a non-profit salmon organization, developed a model to forecast the impact of the drought from 2015 through 2018.  The fish agencies assisted by providing data on returning adults, water temperatures, flows and screw trap counts of the out-migrating juveniles.  The results are shown on the blue line on the next page and they are grim.  Most of the spawning areas during the drought had high water temperatures which were lethal to the incubating eggs.  As a result of this coupled with high predation in low water migration corridors, very few juvenile salmon made it to the ocean and the adult forecast 3 years later is below the minimum threshold.


It takes a minimum of approximately 400,000 adult salmon in the ocean to have an economically viable commercial industry.  At the minimum of 400,000, the industry would harvest about 50% of the fish or 200,000 and the remaining 200,000 would return to spawn.  If the total Chinook returns get below the range of 122,000 to 180,000 fish, the government curtails the fishery to avoid putting the runs at extinction risk.  The chart shows that starting in 2015 the fall-run was below minimums.  The commercial industry and the recreational industry were both curtailed by the government in 2015 and 2016 and besides that, the ocean was so void of fish that most commercial fishermen could not find enough of them to even pay their expenses.  Both 2015 and 2016 were disastrous for the commercial part the industry.  Unfortunately, the blue line suggests there is no improvement in the short term future. 

In 2015, the Water4Fish model forecast an abundance of 294,000 fish which was very close to the actual count of 288,000 recorded at the end of the year.  That provides some degree of confidence in the model.  The chart shows the original government 2015 forecast was 652,000 fish which missed the mark badly.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the stakeholders are working on a comprehensive new model which will improve the forecasts into the future.

The last chart shows the impact of the problems of the current water delivery system and the drought on the natural spawning fall-run fish.  This data excludes the hatchery fish.  The chart shows a serious problem.  During the drought, the severe upriver temperature and flow problems primarily impacted the natural spawning fish.  Most of the hatcheries either had cold water sources or chillers on site.  The chart shows the result.  In 2015, there were only 73,123 natural spawning adults that returned to the Sacramento River and in 2016, thee count dropped 26% more to only 54,626 fish.  The model suggests that this problem is only going to get worse as the impacts from the 2014 and 2015 droughts take their toll on the adults 3 years later in 2017 and 2018.  This is the most serious problem of all.  At these low levels, more drought, poor ocean conditions or something like a disease breakout could wipe out the entire population.  There is no margin for error left.

This is probably the most overpowering reason of all on why we need help to recover these fish.  The blue line shows where we are headed in the near term future.  Increased river flows would help considerably but we also need to break the business as usual attitude that is stalling dozens of habitat and predation projects in both the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds.  Should this run become ESA listed, every water user in the state will be severely impacted.  We can avoid this but the time for action is now.  Also, it is now time that we recognize the crisis that is continuing to get worse for the commercial fishing families. 


Actions that can bring about a Salmon Recovery

In 2012, the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) completed a two-year study on where the Central Valley salmon were being lost and what could be done to reduce these losses.  The primary focus was on the Sacramento system since the losses on the San Joaquin side are near 100%.  The three California State and Federal fish agencies assisted with this study.  The study concluded that most of the losses are occurring as the juvenile salmon are trying to migrate to the ocean.  The losses are the highest in the main stem Sacramento River and in the Delta.  These conclusions have been collaborated by the studies of juvenile salmon survival by the Santa Cruz Science Center, a branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Starting in 2007, the Science Center has been tracking acoustical tagged salmon smolts in 17 tracking stations from Jelly’s Ferry in the upper Sacramento to the Golden Gate.  In high water, high river flow years, they show excellent survival.  However, in low water and low river flow years they show extremely low survival figures.  For example, 2007, 2008 and 2009 were all low water years.  The average survival figures in these years show that by the time the smolts reached Hamilton City, only 76 miles down the river, over half of them had perished with a survival of only 44%.  By the time the smolts reached the Delta, overall survival was only 25%.  Out of the Delta survival was 12% and at the Golden Gate overall survival was only 5.3%.  The salmon runs are clearly unsustainable at these levels.  It takes at least 35% survival at the Golden Gate to have a sustainable run.  Most of the river and Delta losses were attributed to predation. 

The GGSA study scoped 27 projects where investments could yield early improvements.  They mostly targeted river and Delta projects because those are the highest loss areas.  A few of the projects have been completed, and now several are receiving funding but several more remain stalled.  In 2016, the CVPIA restoration fund approved some very important Sacramento River habitat projects including one project to add edge refugia (tree brush) along the edges of the river just below Keswick Dam where the juveniles need hiding places.  Another important approved project will open up to 13 side channels in the upper Sacramento where juveniles can hide from predators, feed and grow.  Three predation avoidance projects were also approved.

Stalled projects that could make a huge difference in survival include opening the Yolo Bypass so that more juveniles can avoid the Delta losses and can also grow in protected habitats.  Several predation projects are stalled including the major loss points in the Delta at Clifton Court, at the Federal CVP pumps and at the pump salvage system. 

One major problem that the State and Federal governments could solve is the permitting process.  Frequently, it is taking up to three years to get a project approved.  We need a fast track system.

Another problem is funding.  Every year the CVPIA restoration fund which is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receives approximately $25 million from the water contractors which is supposed to go to doubling the wild salmon populations.  In the past, the program has been a miserable failure.  Instead of investing in the river and Delta projects where the big problems existed, most of the money went to improving habitat in the upper tributaries.  In their own right, these were good projects but they failed to deliver juveniles to the Golden Gate.  The heavy river and Delta losses prevailed and survival at the Golden Gate was unsatisfactory.  In 2016 the system was changed -- giving the stakeholders more say in the projects that should proceed but the old influences still prevail.  In 2017 most of the spending was still in the upper tributaries.  Only two small projects in the Delta were approved.  2018 may end up the same.  More change is needed.                          

The fall-run suffers from another problem.  The National Marine Fisheries Service has the responsibility to establish and maintain the provisions of the Endangered Species Act for the salmon.  For the most part, the agency has done a very good job in protecting the ESA listed salmon species in the Central Valley from water delivery and export pumping practices that would cause extinctions.  However, they are making a number of decisions that are ending up driving the fall-run towards extinction.  In two instances, they have forced barriers that take away significant fall-run spawning areas.  In other instances, they force high flows to be maintained in the main stem Sacramento River and then cuts occur after the fall-run have spawned.  The result is millions of fall-run eggs being left high and dry to perish along the river edges.  In other instances, they reject or fail to support important fall-run improvement projects because they might remotely affect a listed fish.  NMFS has the ability to make waivers in certain instances.  If a listing of the fall-run is to be avoided, we need more waivers granted. 

About the Authors

Dick Pool and Roger Thomas are two of the most senior and experienced salmon advocates in the State.  Together they represent over 70 years of activity in dealing with the complex salmon issues as stakeholders.  They have both led major campaigns to improve the laws, regulations and policies dealing with the salmon.  Most observers would agree, the California salmon and the salmon fishermen and women are better off for the untiring work and dedication of these two men.       

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Dick Pool served on the Fish and Game stakeholder advisory committee that spent five years scoping the critical changes that were needed in the upper Sacramento River to improve the survival of the salmon.  These included the Shasta Dam temperature curtain, the fix of the Iron Mountain arsenic problem, modernization of the Coleman hatchery and installation of modern fish screens at the Glenn Colusa water diversion.  After the winter-run fish was ESA listed in 2004, the Federal government spent a billion dollars and implemented all of these projects  The projects worked and by 2002 the ocean salmon abundance set a modern record of 1.5 million fish.  Pool also spent two years on a Federal NMFS committee trying to avoid an ESA listing of the winter-run salmon.  He spent six years on the Board of the National American Sportfishing Association and in 2009 was awarded the Association’s highest  award of honor for his lifetime work on the conservation of salmon and steelhead.  He has testified before both Congress and the State Legislature and numerous agencies on salmon issues.  He is currently President of Water4Fish, President of Pro-Troll Fishing Products and on the Board of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.  He also represents salmon on the CSAMP Policy Collaboration Committee of Public Water Agencies, NGOs, and the leaders of the State and Federal fishery and water agencies.

Roger Thomas has a long history of salmon involvement.  In 1976, he was appointed as one of the initial members of the salmon sub-panel of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council which regulates the ocean salmon fishery and other species in Washington, Oregon and California.  After serving on several other PFMC sub-panels, including the coastal pelagic fisheries sub-panel, he served on the Council itself for 13 ½ years.  He has served as a California advisor to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission since 1974.  He has testified on salmon and worked with Congress, the California Legislature, the Fish and Game Commission, NMFS and numerous other agencies all for better salmon policies.  He is President of the Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association representing Commercial Passenger Vessels from Monterey to Eureka.  He is Chairman of the Golden Gate Salmon Association and is a Board member at Water4Fish.  He owns and operates the salmon charter vessel “Salty Lady”  which operates out of Sausalito and Half Moon Bay.