Salmon returns of to the American River in Northern California have always gone through cycles, but this year the number of fall chinook returning to the river that runs through Sacramento is lower than it has been in years.

While roughly 600,000 salmon were in the Pacific Ocean at this time last year, now there are estimated 300,000 with virtually half of those off-limits to fishing to propagate next year’s spawn. There are another 140,000 salmon likely returning to the Klamath River, but those numbers too are extremely low.

The dismal numbers have caused the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to announce it is expecting restrictions on the upcoming season. Exact details will not be decided until the end of March, but charter boat captains are already feeling the pinch as the rivers just are not as full as they once were. 

“I’ve been fishing this river since 1970,” said Allan Ezell, owner of Big Al’s Salmon Guides Sacramento, told KCRA Channel 3. “I’ve never seen it get this bad.”

Ezell estimates he’s lost more than $20,000 because of the situation.

“It’s just incredible to see,” Ezell said. “When you catch a fish and look at it, they look totally different. You can tell that there is something wrong.”

Biologists believe that river conditions affected by the drought have been unfavorable to salmon, which spawn return to their spawning grounds after 3-4 years.  Once in the ocean, the warm waters caused by El Nino conditions this year did not make it any easier. 

In Oregon and Washington, where chinook returns have been strong this year to the Columbia River, it’s the coho salmon that faces dismal returns. 

“Unfavorable ocean conditions led to fewer coho salmon returning last year than we anticipated,” said John Long, salmon fisheries policy lead for Washington  Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a press release. “We expect to see another down year for coho in 2016 and will likely have to restrict fishing for salmon in a variety of locations to protect wild coho stocks.”

For more information and to follow upcoming regulatory changes in California click here

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