Calif. Fishery Scientists Announce Poor 2023 Outlook for Ocean Salmon Stocks

At the annual Salmon Information Meeting held virtually on March 1, state and federal fishery scientists presented the numbers of spawning salmon that returned to California’s rivers late in 2022 and announced poor abundance forecasts for key state stocks.

The 2023 projection for Sacramento River fall Chinook is estimated to be one of the lowest forecasts since 2008 when the current assessment method began. File photo by G. Ghrist/CDFW.

The 2023 projection for Sacramento River fall Chinook, the most predominant stock harvested in California’s fisheries, is estimated at 169,767 adults, one of the lowest forecasts since 2008 when the current assessment method began.

For Klamath River fall Chinook the forecast is 103,793 adults, the second lowest forecast since the current assessment method began in 1997. Although low, neither abundance forecast is the lowest recorded. In 2009, the Sacramento forecast was 122,200 and in 2017, Klamath’s was 54,200.

Salmon numbers are episodic over time and life cycles, which is generally a three-year period from birth as eggs hatch to returning adults from the ocean. For example, in 2022 ocean commercial catch was considerably greater than preseason expectations.

The data also indicates that following wetter hydrologic years abundance is higher. For instance, the 2010 above-average rainfall year resulted in higher stock forecasts of California adult Chinook in 2012 and 2013.

Conversely, drier years regularly result in lower abundance three years later. Three years ago, in 2020, conditions were particularly severe.

“This is a decades-long trend, and the past few years of record drought only further stressed our salmon populations,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton Bonham commented. “Unfortunately, low stock abundance is somewhat expected despite protective and restorative actions California has taken to increase hatchery production, improve release strategies and increase the availability of critical spawning and rearing habitats.”

The recent wet weather in California is seen by fisheries officials as good news.

Relatively higher returns in 2019 and 2020 could help boost the number of spawning adults returning to the Sacramento Basin in 2023, as fish hatched in 2019 and 2020 will be returning this year, according to CDFW.

“Even though this boost will be moderated by evolving ocean conditions and ongoing climate disruption, there are bright spots and reasons for caution heading into 2023 and beyond,” CDFW said in a statement.

“Rebuilding plans have been developed for the Sacramento River fall Chinook and Klamath River fall Chinook stocks after multi-agency collaboration between the Pacific Fishery Management Council, CDFW, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tribes and industry representatives,” the state agency said.

Meanwhile, CDFW said that other ambitious efforts to rebuild salmon are continuing, most notably implementation of one of the largest river restoration and dam removal projects in the nation’s history in the Klamath Basin.

During the Salmon Information Meeting, which was attended by members of the fishing industry, conservation organizations and other interested parties, such as ocean and in-river recreational anglers and commercial salmon trollers, asked questions about the latest numbers and provided comments during a public listening session that followed the presentations.

Final ocean salmon season regulations are to be adopted at the PFMC’s April 1-7 meeting. The California Fish and Game Commission is expected to consider and approve inland fishery seasons and regulations this spring, with final decisions in May.

Following several years of poor returns to the Klamath River Basin, fall Chinook salmon there were declared overfished in 2018 and haven’t yet achieved a rebuilt status under the terms of the federal Salmon Fishery Management Plan.

In 2022, returns of Sacramento River fall Chinook fell far short of conservation objectives, and now may be approaching an overfished condition after being declared rebuilt in 2021, according to CDFW.

In response, federal and state agencies are expected to take a conservative approach when approving 2023 salmon seasons to provide additional protective measures to these stocks. Very limited or no fishing appears possible.