SAN DIEGO -- As drought dried up rivers that carry California's newly hatched Chinook salmon to the ocean, state officials in recent years resorted to loading up the fish by the millions onto trucks and barges to take them to the Pacific.
The surreal and desperate scramble boosted the survival rate of the hatchery-raised fish, but still it was not enough to reverse the declining stocks in the face of added challenges. River water temperatures rose with warm weather, and a Trump-era rollback of federal protections for waterways allowed more water to be diverted to farms. Climate change, meanwhile, threatens food sources for the young Chinook maturing in the Pacific.
Now, ocean salmon fishing season is set to be prohibited this year off California and much of Oregon for the second time in 15 years after adult fall-run Chinook, often known as king salmon, returned to California's rivers in near record-low numbers in 2022.
"There will be no wild-caught California salmon to eat unless someone has still got some vacuum sealed last year in their freezer," said John McManus of the Golden State Salmon Association.
Experts fear native California salmon, which make up a significant portion of the Pacific Northwest's fishing industry, are in a spiral toward extinction. Much of the salmon caught off Oregon originate in California's Klamath and Sacramento rivers. After hatching in freshwater, they spend three years on average maturing in the Pacific, where many are snagged by commercial fishermen, before migrating back to their spawning grounds, where conditions are more ideal to give birth. After laying eggs, they die.
Already California's spring-run Chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while winter-run Chinook are endangered along with the Central California Coast coho salmon, which has been off-limits to California commercial fishers since the 1990s.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the authority responsible for setting ocean salmon seasons off the Pacific coast, is expected in early April to formally approve its proposed closure of Chinook fishing along the coast from Cape Falcon in northern Oregon to the California-Mexico border. Salmon season is expected to open as usual north of Cape Falcon, including in the Columbia River and off Washington's coast.
Though the closure will deal a blow to the industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs, few are disputing it.
"We want to make sure they are here for the future," said third-generation fisherman Garin McCarthy, who described catching a Chinook as "magical."
McCarthy, whose entire income last year came from salmon fishing off both California and Oregon, has had to invest thousands of dollars in equipment to fish other species like rockfish, halibut and black cod.
"We're all scrambling to try to make our boats do something different," he said. "We're all salmon trollers. That's what we do. That's what we live for."
Glen Spain, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said he believes the ban might need to be in place for two or three years to bring back sustainable stocks after many fish died in 2020, the start of a record-dry period.
The Chinook already faced challenges, with dams blocking their historic retreats to the chilly upper reaches of Northern California's Sacramento River and the Klamath River along the California-Oregon border. Decades of development have disrupted the natural flow of rivers and polluted waters.
In 2020, the Trump administration ended federal protections for millions of waterways, allowing for more water to be pumped out of the Sacramento River Basin for farming despite warnings from biologists that it could harm salmon runs in the future.
Fishers say river water temperatures increased with the diversions for irrigation, killing more eggs and hatchlings and preventing the stocks from bouncing back amid the drought.
"This one ain't on us," said Bob Maharry, 68, a lifelong San Francisco-based fisherman. "This has nothing to do with overfishing. This is poor management of water."
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the estimated number of adult fall Chinook expected to return to spawn in the Sacramento River this year is less than 170,000, one of the lowest forecasts since the current assessment method began in 2008. Fewer than 104,000 fall Chinook are likely to return to the Klamath River, the second lowest estimate since 1997.
In 2021, a judge determined the Trump administration improperly limited federal protections and restored them to a narrower 1986 standard. The Biden administration is expected to expand the protections in 2024.
Some are banking on the unusually wet winter to bring relief. Record rain and snowfall since late last year have freed two-thirds of California from drought. But too much water could also flush out eggs and hatchlings.
Businesses tied to salmon want the government to declare the situation a federal disaster so they may receive aid. As the market shrinks, more restaurants turn to farm-raised salmon, while gear suppliers stop stocking the proper equipment to fish Chinook.
"Not everybody is going to make it out of this type of a closure unfortunately," said Andy Giuliano, who owns Fish Emeryville, a bait-and-tackle shop and booking service for 16 charter boats that offer salmon fishing trips to tourists in the San Francisco Bay area. "It's a real stress test on the industry."
Eric Schindler, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's ocean salmon project leader, said he "was not expecting it to be this drastic," assuming the year would bring restrictions but not a full closure for most of Oregon.
Jeff Reeves, who has been salmon fishing from the Coos Bay, Oregon, area since the 1970s and is also a member of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said he plans to fish rockfish, black cod and maybe tuna. Later this year he plans to target coho salmon from Oregon, which is doing well enough to be fished unlike the coho in California. But it won't make up for the loss of the Chinook, which are bigger, fattier fish that are in higher demand.
"It's devastating," he said. "The Oregon fleet is already on life support," which dropped from a height of about 4,500 boats to about 180 today, he added.
On a stretch of the Klamath River in Northern California, the Yurok tribe has watched for years the decimation of the culturally significant salmon population. Barry McCovey Jr., director of the tribe's fisheries department, said the tribe's Chinook allotment is likely to be very small this year.
Still, he is hopeful the planned removal of four dams on the Klamath River will improve the fish's future.
"It's not a silver bullet, but a big step in right direction," McCovey said. "There's still a lot of battles to fight if we want to have coho and Chinook."