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California's salmon fishing season is canceled

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

California salmon haven't had enough water, and as a result, their numbers have gone down, which means that Californians who fish them for a living don't have enough work. Now the state's fishery managers say the salmon should be left alone to swim up rivers and spawn, so they're closing the commercial and recreational season. But there is an effort underway that could help both the salmon and their fishers. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Ezra David Romero reports.

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EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Matt Juanes is building a plywood table where he hopes to process salmon someday. He docks his 36-foot-long, green and white boat at San Francisco's iconic Fisherman's Wharf.

MATT JUANES: Trying to build this as strong as possible.

ROMERO: When he catches salmon, they mostly end up at local restaurants. But for the second year in a row, he's not allowed to fish them, and that means he's expecting to lose nearly half of his income.

JUANES: Last year was a very difficult year with the pushback of crab and closure of salmon. This year is going to be very difficult.

ROMERO: According to the Golden State Salmon Association, salmon fishing in California is a $1.4 billion industry supporting 23,000 jobs. The fish have a three-year life cycle, so this year's returning fish were born during the most recent drought, when there wasn't enough water for them to thrive.

JUANES: It comes down to water. You know, we had a drought. I mean, if it rained like this, probably wouldn't be in this predicament.

ROMERO: Drought isn't the only thing to blame for California's shrinking salmon populations. UC Davis' Robert Lusardi, who studies California fish and waterways, said the closure of the salmon season is a symptom of how humans have altered salmon habitat, like damming rivers and polluting runoff. At one point in history, up to 2 million salmon swam up California's biggest river system. This year, Lusardi expects just over 200,000. And in the next 50 years, he said nearly half of the state's native salmon and trout species could disappear.

ROBERT LUSARDI: And so what we have left are essentially small populations that are not diverse, and that means that they are not resilient to change.

ROMERO: In January, Governor Gavin Newsom outlined a sweeping salmon strategy. The plan aims to make it easier for salmon to get upriver to spawn and increase water levels in some waterways. For example, the state is in the process of removing four dams on the Klamath River, partly so fish have more habitat. Lusardi says these steps are a good start.

LUSARDI: That is really a beacon of hope for the future, but it has to happen at a faster rate.

ROMERO: Colin Purdy runs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife North Central Region Fisheries Program. He said many of the actions outlined in the state's new strategy are underway, such as removing dams, but others have yet to begin. Purdy is helping change how the state tracks fish but said the effort will likely take years of pilot studies.

COLIN PURDY: The sooner we can get started on that stuff, the better.

ROMERO: Environmental groups critique the plan, saying the state is also pursuing projects that could decrease the amount of cold water in rivers that salmon need to live.

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ROMERO: Back at Fisherman's Wharf, Matt Juanes said he will likely fish for crab and take tourists out on his boat to make ends meet. He isn't giving up altogether and says he supports closing the season.

JUANES: I'd rather see the fish go back up the river, count them for next year and come back and have a great season next year.

ROMERO: But the loss of the season hurts. In a good salmon season, he can quickly catch enough fish to make a living. But this year, he said he'll have to spend more time out on the water and away from his family before he's made enough money to head home. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.