‘Disaster of a season for us’: Cancellation ripples through California salmon fishery

Workers unload fresh salmon at the Santa Cruz Harbor.
Hans Haveman of H&H Fresh Fish helps unload salmon with H&H employees Logan Mankins and Vince Golder at the Santa Cruz Harbor in 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Citing record-low stock of the fish prized by commercial and recreational interests alike, a federal commission moved last week to cancel the 2023 salmon season, which had been set to open in May and run into the fall. “It’s a really tough situation for commercial fishermen in California,” said one industry veteran from Ben Lomond.

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California’s salmon fishermen are seeking federal disaster aid after getting the word that the 2023 commercial and recreational salmon season has been canceled. The closure, which was floated last month, was officially recommended last week by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal commission overseeing West Coast fisheries.

It comes as projections show record-low salmon stocks, and regulators say the closure is needed to ensure maintenance of a healthy salmon population. Much of the fishing in Oregon has also been canceled.

“It’s obviously a disaster of a season for us,” said Tim Obert of Ben Lomond, who has been fishing salmon commercially for close to two decades. “It takes our living away.”

California’s salmon industry is valued at $1.4 billion and accounts for over 20,000 jobs annually in a regular season, which typically runs from mid-May through late September/early October. It’s one of the biggest fisheries in the state, along with Dungeness crab. With the crab season starting late this year and ending early, on Saturday, it’s a double blow for the state’s fishermen.

“I have some money saved and I can go do some tuna fishing, but not everyone can do that,” said Obert, the vice president of the Santa Cruz Commercial Fishermen’s Association and a member of the Dungeness Crab Task Force. “It’s a really tough situation for commercial fishermen in California.”

He’s hopeful that sitting out this year will help improve conditions for next year.

There are around 40 to 45 commercial salmon boats in the Santa Cruz Harbor, plus another 200 to 300 recreational fishermen, not to mention those who keep their boats elsewhere, bringing it to an estimated total of 400 to 500, according to harbormaster Blake Anderson. The closure will have a major impact on the harbor — including the loss of docking and fueling fees. It also affects adjacent businesses like bait shops, gear providers and fish sellers.

“When the salmon fishing is good here, people come from all over the western United States,” Anderson said. “It’s a big loss for us and we’re going to have to find ways to adapt to it.”

Prolonged drought, wildfires, toxic algae blooms and other factors have led to some of the lowest-ever salmon stock abundance forecasts for the state’s two biggest salmon stocks, the Sacramento River and the Klamath River, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

A fall-run Chinook salmon swims in a holding pond at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery
A fall-run Chinook salmon swims in a holding pond at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery in January 2022.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“We have a salmon advisory body composed of fishermen on the West Coast and our tribal partners — most of the fishermen I’ve talked to, as painful as it’s been, they support the closure,” said Robin Ehlke, the PFMC’s salmon staff officer. “They know they have to give the fish a pause … that says a lot for fishermen, I believe, to say that closing is the right thing.”

The recommendation to cancel the season now goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service for the official stamp of approval in mid-May. Next year, the PFMC will reassess and could potentially open the 2024 season early if conditions improve.

Coho salmon have been documented for the first time in Mill Creek, to the surprise of ecologists and conservationists...

But some believe this year’s cancellation was preventable. The ongoing drought, coupled with diversion of large amounts of water for agriculture and cities, has affected river flows and water temperatures. The result? Poor conditions for young salmon and their eggs.

“If water management decisions had been made differently, this wouldn’t have had to happen,” said John McManus, senior policy director with the Golden State Salmon Association. “We were warning this would happen and our warnings fell on deaf ears.”

Now, McManus said, the goal is to fight to get compensation for the fishermen who are sidelined this year. At a news conference Friday in San Francisco, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi said she would push President Joe Biden’s administration on the state’s request for a fishery resource disaster declaration, which would pave the way for monetary assistance for those affected by the closure. But that will take time, and many of California’s salmon fishermen don’t have a buffer to keep them afloat, McManus said.

For Obert, it’s also about the larger issue of California salmon fishing’s future and sustaining this valuable resource.

“We just want change. We want to fix the industry so it has a viable future,” he said. “A lot of things need to change to get it back on track.”


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