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Historical Abundance and Decline of Chinook Salmon in the Central Valley Region of California

Published Article
North American Journal of Fisheries Management
Wiley (John Wiley & Sons)
Publication Date
Feb 01, 1998
DOI: 10.1577/1548-8675(1998)018<0487:HAADOC>2.0.CO;2
Center for Watershed Sciences John Muir Institute of the Environment


The Central Valley drainage of California formerly produced immense numbers of chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha. Four seasonal runs occur in this system - fall, late-fall, winter, and spring runs. Differences in life history timing and spatial distribution enabled the four runs to use the drainage to the fullest possible extent and once made it one of the richest regions in the world for chinook salmon production. Native American fishers within the Central Valley drainage harvested chinook salmon at estimated levels that reached 8.5 million pounds or more annually. Native harvests, therefore, were roughly comparable to the peak commercial harvests taken later by Euro-American fishers, but whether or not native fishing depressed the productive capacities of the salmon populations to any substantial degree is not known. The commercial chinook salmon fishery in California started about 1850 in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, where it formed the nucleus of the first major fishery conducted by Euro-American immigrants in the state. This fishery was one of the important early industries that supported the Euro-American settlement of the Central Valley region. The salmon fishery remained centered there until the early 1900s, when ocean salmon fishing began to expand and eventually came to dominate the fishery. Annual catches by the early Sacramento-San Joaquin in-river fishery commonly reached 4-10 million pounds and generally were higher than the total statewide catches made during the most recent several decades. The historical abundances of Central Valley chinook salmon before large-scale commercial exploitation and depletion of the runs cannot be determined with certainty. However, on the basis of early commercial catch records, the maximal production levels of the Central Valley chinook salmon stocks in aggregate may be conservatively estimated to have reached approximately 1-2 million spawners annually. Although substantial investment has been made by the state of California in managing the chinook salmon resource since the early years of the commercial fishery, chinook salmon have declined over the decades to small fractions of their previous numbers. The decline of the Central Valley chinook salmon resource was caused by several factors: overfishing, blockage and degradation of streams by mining activities, and reduction of salmon habitat and streamflows by dams and water diversions. Differences between the four chinook salmon runs in life history timing and habitat requirements partly account for their different population histories; the winter run is now threatened with extinction, the spring run recently has approached a similarly imperiled state, and the late-fall run has been at moderately low population levels for the past two decades. Only the fall run, in aggregate, can be regarded as secure, but it too has undergone substantial reductions in abundance. Fall-run spawner numbers were especially low in the San Joaquin River basin in recent years, and in Sacramento River basin streams their numbers have been heavily influenced by production of hatchery fish.

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