In 2014, tens of millions of baby salmon were trucked down the Sacramento River in hopes of improving their chance of survival in the drought. But then ocean temperatures were too warm.
“Once they’re out in the ocean, if the conditions aren’t right, it’s just one of those factors that we can’t control. I think it’s just the suite of compounding adverse conditions that have really led to these depressed stocks this year," says Stafford Lehr with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In the Klamath River, salmon not only had to contend with the drought, but also with a harmful parasite. Lehr says that means very few salmon are available to catch. He says fish managers don’t like to deliver such bad news.
“It’s the last thing they want to hear after what’s happened with the Dungeness crab fishery the past year. This is just a really…not a good time.”
Last year and in late 2015, the Dungeness crab fishery was shut down after health officials found levels of domoic acid in crabs. A massive algae bloom produced the toxin. David Bitts is a commercial salmon and crab fisherman based in Eureka.
“I have not had the success salmon fishing for the last 10 years that I had for the 20 years before that. Nor have many other people,” says Bitts, who is also President of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.
Forecasts suggest about 230,000 Sacramento River fall-run salmon will be in the ocean this year, and just 54,000 Klamath River salmon. The Klamath numbers are the lowest on record.
But there is reason for fishermen to be hopeful. The last three months have brought near record amounts of rain to the Sacramento River.
"This is the best shot of life that we could have had, " says Lehr. "For the whole suite of species, from the salmon that were naturally spawned last fall in the river, to the sturgeon, to the native fishes, this really was a benefit."