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California salmon and steelhead: Beyond the crossroads

January 1, 1997

Virtually all California salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) and steelhead (O. mykiss) stocks have declined to record or near-record low levels during 1980-95. Escapement of naturally spawning Klamath and Sacramento basin fall-run chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha) stocks has fallen consistently below the goals of 35,000 adults (Klamath) and 120,000 adults (Sacramento) established by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. These two stocks constitute the primary management units for ocean harvest regulations in California and southern Oregon. This decline triggered a mandatory review of ocean harvest and inland production conditions in each basin. The Sacramento winter-run chinook salmon, once numbering >100,000 adult spawners, was listed as threatened in 1990 and endangered in 1994 under the Endangered Species Act. The listing occurred as a result of a precipitous decline in abundance (to <200 adult spawners) and significant threats to this stock’s continued existence.

Spring-run chinook salmon, historically an abundant component of California’s inland fish fauna with >500,000 adult spawners, has been extirpated from the San Joaquin River basin. However, remnant populations of this naturally spawning stock remain within the Klamath, Smith, and Sacramento river basins. Unfortunately, annual counts of 3,000-25,000 spawners in the Sacramento River basin during the past 25 years are largely of hatchery origin. Recent steelhead data from the same region indicate that many stocks are close to extinction, and nearly all steel-head in the Sacramento River are also of hatchery origin. Both spring-run chinook salmon and summer steelhead are considered to be species of special concern by the California Department of Fish and Game because of their limited distributions and sensitivities to degraded habitat conditions. The southern race of winter steelhead south of Point Conception is nearly extinct and remnant populations have been recently recorded in only 9 streams.

Coastal cutthroat trout (O. clarki), which are restricted to lowland drainages from the Eel River northward, are greatly depleted. Coho salmon (O. kisutch),which once probably numbered close to 1,000,000 fish per year in coastal California streams, have dwindled to —5,000 natural spawners per year. Chum salmon (O. keta), never a significant part of the state’s native fish fauna, are currently restricted to <10 spawners in three different streams in the Sacramento River basin and occasionally in the South Fork of the Trinity River. The historically small runs of pink salmon (O. gorbuscha) in the Sacramento and Russian rivers are probably now extirpated. Anadromous sockeye salmon (O. nerka) are only recorded as strays.

In response to serious declines in salmon and steelhead stocks, numerous legislative and congressional actions have been undertaken and California has embarked on an ambitious planto restore riparian habitats, improve fish passage, and increase natural production. Additionally, many currently unlisted California salmon and steelhead stocks are potential candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. These include coho, chum, spring-run chinook, and San Joaquin fall-run chinook salmon, as well as summer steelhead and the southern race of winter steelhead.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1997
Title California salmon and steelhead: Beyond the crossroads
DOI 10.1007/978-1-4615-6375-4_9
Authors Terry J. Mills, Dennis R. McEwan, Mark R. Jennings
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 87337
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center