From the Editor: California’s Salmon Struggles

Chinook salmon on the Lower Tuolumne River in the Central Valley of California. Photo: Dan Cook (USFWS), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

California isn’t within the commercial fishing industry’s epicenter, but it is a notable component of the industry as a whole. And currently the state, particularly the northern half, is experiencing a challenge that is literally an existential threat: struggling salmon populations.

Salmon once thrived in the rivers that run throughout the state, but due to the construction of dams, they’ve been blocked from reaching many of the cold mountain streams where they once spawned.

Additionally, multiple droughts in the state over the years and climate change effects have not helped. In fact, during some periods of the state’s massive drought from 2020-22, the water flowing from dams became so warm that it was lethal for salmon eggs, thereby further diminishing the potential supply of adult fish for commercial fishermen to catch.

But recently, California has unveiled a plan to restore salmon in the state, which could help commercial fishermen who desperately need to earn a living.

In a 37-page document titled “California Salmon Strategy for a Hotter, Drier Future: Restoring Aquatic Ecosystems in the Age of Climate Change,” state officials have detailed the rescue strategy.

“Our goals are to recover salmon in this state across their range, which is aspirational and forward-looking, while also reducing the risk of extinction, which is a short-term and long-term focus,” the document states. “Healthy year-after-year salmon runs provide more than an opportunity for subsistence, recreational, and commercial fishing – all of which are vitally important to California’s people and economy on their own.”

Among the goals are directives of the strategy are to remove barriers and modernize infrastructure for salmon migration; restore and expand habitat for salmon spawning and rearing; and protecting water flows and water quality in key rivers.

Regarding the removing barriers and modernizing infrastructure component, California aims to complete the largest dam removal project in the country’s history by the end of 2024. Under the Klamath River dam project, the Copco 2 dam was removed last fall, while the river’s remaining three dams are to be removed later this year.

Their removal is expected to not only heal the ecosystem of the-once abundant salmon river, but also open hundreds of miles of spawning habitat.

Also, last November, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gave federal energy regulators its initial plan for removing two century-old dams from the Eel River on the North Coast. Dam removal could reopen hundreds of stream miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat.

Regarding the restoration and expansion of habitat for salmon spawning, the Yurok Tribe of Native Americans is removing tailings and reconnecting the Oregon Gulch section of the Trinity River to its floodplain.

The Trinity is the largest Klamath River tributary and was once a rich salmon and steelhead spawning river. The project, which is being paid for in part by nearly $1 million awarded by the U.S. Department of the Interior and $4 million granted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is expected to double salmon rearing habitat.

Regarding protecting water flows and water quality, officials say that over the next couple of years, California is investing in hundreds of projects to protect salmon so they can return to their natal spawning grounds.

The state’s ‘tool kit’ to increase flows, improve water quality, prioritize adequate temperature, and provide baseline protections is diverse and includes regulations; water rights action; the legal “public trust” doctrine that recognizes a public right to aquatic ecosystems; infrastructure modernization; water use efficiencies; and coordinated use of water.

“Without enough cold water juvenile salmon cannot complete their lifecycle and recover and grow the population,” the strategy document states. “Adequate flows of cold water …will help protect endangered and imperiled species when they are most at risk.”

To be clear, even after the restoration measures have been completed, it could take years for the flow of salmon in California’s waters to substantially increase. This may not be of comfort for those who are out on the water trying to earn a living under very trying circumstances.

But if there’s any comfort to be had, it’s in knowing that the next generation of commercial fishermen will likely have an easier time plying their trade within California’s waters.

Managing Editor Mark Nero can be reached at (619) 313-4351 or