J.D. Richey caught his first salmon in the American River as a seventh-grader. It was just over 13 pounds, hooked on a spinning lure from a canoe downstream of the Howe Avenue bridge.
The experience so impressed him that he became a fishing guide. Now, after 10 years helping clients from all over the world catch Central Valley salmon, 2008 could be Richey's final season.
A near-record-low fall chinook spawning run in 2007 has regulators considering an all-out ban on salmon fishing in California this year. It would protect surviving fish, but for Richey and others whose lives are tied to salmon, the future looks dim.
"Sacramento is pretty unique in that we've had world-class numbers of salmon coming through a major metropolitan area," said Richey, 39, who was born and raised in the city. "Sacramento has had more salmon than lots of Alaskan rivers. We took our bounty for granted."
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The Central Valley fall chinook run is the mainstay of commercial and recreational salmon fishing on the California and Oregon coasts, worth $103 million annually. This does not include dollars generated by inland fishing on rivers.
After 15 years of historically robust returns, the 2007 fall run saw a plunge to near-record lows – surprising regulators who expected an average year.
Biologists aren't certain what caused the plunge. But they suspect poor ocean conditions.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has measured ocean food productivity since 1975, both near California and in the larger Pacific Ocean.
In 2005, for the first time in that data-keeping record, California productivity failed to follow the larger ocean. Food declined in the ocean near California, while increasing elsewhere.
Young salmon entering the ocean from their California spawning rivers may not have found enough to eat. Because salmon return to their home rivers after two to four years at sea, last year's poor run may be just the first proof of this theory. Fall 2008 may be worse.
"It's going to be a hard year for the fishermen," said Peter Dygert, a biologist at the fisheries service. "The circumstances this year for Sacramento fall chinook in particular – but for some other stocks too – are pretty bad. I don't recall a time when fisheries have been so constrained."
The Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this week in Sacramento to debate the season. On Friday it will approve one of three options for the season, including a ban. The final option will be chosen in April.
State and federal agencies will then adopt final rules that take effect May 1. But Dygert said his agency may impose limits sooner, because some areas have already opened to fishing or will open soon, including an offshore recreational season near Point Arena that opened Feb. 16.
The California Fish and Game Commission will consider closures on April 15 affecting state waters within 3 miles of shore, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and major tributaries.
Some fishing groups blame water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for the salmon decline. They certainly have an effect: Records show the state and federal water pumps killed about 5,800 chinook salmon between October and February.
But because chinook runs in other coastal rivers also declined last year, biologists believe ocean effects are to blame.
That decline occurred because the jet stream changed course in spring 2005, in turn disrupting ocean currents. The currents drive an upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, touching off a phytoplankton bloom that forms the base of the food chain.
That bloom either failed to happen in some places or was delayed, leaving the menu empty when hungry young salmon went looking for food.
Scientists have said the disrupted jet stream is consistent with changes likely to be caused by global warming.
J.D. Richey, then, may be one of Sacramento's first climate change victims.
"A lot of people don't realize it's more than just a fish going away. We're losing a significant neighbor," Richey said. "I felt this last year there was something missing – almost at the soul level. I could just feel the salmon weren't anywhere, and it just bummed me out."
Helping people catch salmon on the American, Sacramento and Feather rivers makes up 90 percent of Richey's business. Last year, the salmon return was so low that he booked only a handful of trips.
By now he would be filling his calendar with salmon bookings for 2008. But he's not even advertising salmon this year. On Thursday he helped two men from Fremont catch steelhead on the American River. He also plans to go after striped bass in the Delta.
He says he'll probably give up guiding after this year. He'll sell his gear and turn full-time to writing for various sporting publications, which he's done part time for several years.
Richey is one of about 10 full-time salmon guides in Sacramento whose fortunes are dimming along with the fishing retailers, restaurants and hotels that benefit at least in part from the chinook's annual return.
Alan Fong, manager of Fisherman's Warehouse in Sacramento, said his shop is the largest tackle dealer in Northern California. A third of its $3 million annual gross is salmon-related.
"I was born and raised here, and this is the worst salmon season I've ever seen in my life," said Fong, 54. "It's going to hurt a lot of people – put a lot of people out of business."
Gary Manies, owner of Strictly Fishin' tackle shop in Redding, said the chinook run supports 78 guides in his area. Each salmon caught, he said, is worth $700 to the local economy.
"It's a very, very big thing for this community," adds Redding guide Daryl Rogers, who called a season closure "crushing" for his business. "There are a tremendous amount of guides here that are going to lose."
On Friday, 46 members of Congress representing Pacific states urged Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to declare a fishery failure. This would speed economic aid to people like Richey, but do nothing for the fish.
"The part that gets me all choked up is, are my kids going to be able to catch salmon?" Richey said. "I don't know. The signs aren't looking real good."