What's Killing California's Salmon?

California's salmon season has been officially called off — for the second straight year. Fishery managers canceled all commercial and sport fishing as scientists struggle to figure out why the Chinook salmon population has collapsed.

The decision to shut down the season was a relatively easy one, says Frank Lockhart, head of sustainable fisheries for the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The Chinook salmon population has declined dramatically over the past two years.

"Last year's was a record low that was well below the conservation goals for that stock," Lockhart said. "This year it is just barely above the minimum returns required."

Tourists are lined up at Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco, ready to pay $20 for a crab cocktail. Around the back of the tourist wharf is the real wharf, where fisherman Zeke Grader looks out over the fleet of fishing boats. It's quiet.

"That's the sad thing, we have so many [fishing boats] in port right now, there's just nothing to do," he says.

Normally, these boats would be gearing up for the start of salmon season.

"We had inklings even last year that the situation was not looking good for this year," Grader says. "The big issue now is trying to make sure everybody stays alive for this year."

About 1,000 fishermen are affected. Emergency funds were set aside to help carry them through this year. No one knows if next year will be any better, however, because no one knows precisely why there's been such a dramatic crash in salmon numbers.

Fisherman Grader thinks the big issue has been water. "Right now we're on a course to extinction if we don't do something quick about the water."

That water may be a hundred miles upstream. Napa Valley's Monticello Dam is one of the big rim dams of the Central Valley. It supplies water to areas of San Francisco.

Peter Moyle, a professor at the University of California, Davis, says dams are often cited as one of the reasons why the salmon are failing.

Other reasons include habitat loss, urban runoff and agricultural pesticides. And ironically, Moyle says, from the salmon hatcheries themselves.

"Because they're a uniform hatchery fish, they're all going out to sea at about the same time. They're all going out to sea at a fairly small size. If conditions happen to be poor in the ocean at that time, they can all die."

Chinook is a favorite for restaurants because of its large size and light taste. Salmon lovers hope it will be back on the market in 2010.

David Gorn reports for member station KQED in San Francisco.

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