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Commission closes fishing in American, Russian rivers due to low flows

By Dan Bacher  |

The California Fish and Game Commission on February 5 voted to close fishing on the American and Russian rivers and a number of coastal streams in order to protect steelhead and salmon threatened by low flow conditions caused by the record drought and the poor management of upstream reservoirs. 

The Commission at its meeting in Sacramento unanimously adopted the following emergency regulations as recommended by the Department of Fish and Wildlife last week: 

• Closure of the American River from Nimbus Dam to the SMUD power line crossing at the southwest boundary of Ancil Hoffman Park until April 30. 

• Closure of the Russian River main stem below the confluence of the East Branch of the Russian River until April 30. 

• Extension of the low flow restrictions angling closures for the north coast and central coast areas (above San Francisco Bay) until April 30. 

• Close all portions of any coastal stream west of any Highway 1 bridge in the South Coast District (iSan Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties) until April 30. 

“We can’t make it rain, but we can take action to relieve our beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations from any additional stress,” said Commission President Michael Sutton. “I’m proud that the fishing community supports this action as essential for the conservation of our precious fishery resources.” 

All of the representatives of the fishery conservation organizations who spoke at the meeting supported the closures. However, Lowell Ashbaugh, conservation vice president of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Flyfishers (NCFFF), also recommended instituting a low flow closure whenever the American River goes below 800 cfs, as well as extending the closure line on the American River from Ancil Hoffman Park to Gristmilll. 

“You can be assured you have the backing of flyfishers in this state,” Ashbaugh told the Commission before the vote. “I hate to request a closure, because I’d rather be out there on the river fishing. But protecting of fish is most important. If we don’t have the fish, we don’t have the fishing." (

Stafford Lehr, CDFW Fisheries Branch Chief of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained the dire situation the steelhead, salmon and other fish are currently in. 

"For example, the snowpack in the American River watershed is only 12 percent of normal and Folsom Lake is only 17 percent of capacity," said Lehr. "We are trying to maximize the protection of as many wild fish in the American as other rivers as possible. We are implementing the emergency closures on some waters to reduce mortality caused by angling." 

Lerh added, “This is about keeping as many adult spawning salmon and steelhead in the rivers as possible. We are fully aware of the impacts these closures will have on anglers and related businesses. However, anglers have overwhelmingly supported the decision to close fisheries because they are the original conservationists. They understand the severity of this drought.” 

Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), emphasized that the Department should be proactive in taking measures to protect salmon and steelhead, including looking at trucking hatchery fish and trapping and rescuing natural spawners on the rivers and tributaries. The measures were outlined in a recent letter to the Secretaries of Interior, Commerce and California’s Natural Resource Agency by PCFFA, the Golden Gate Salmon Association, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Golden Gate Fishermen's Association and Coastside Fishing Club. 

The groups asked the Secretaries to convene a joint emergency meeting to save Central Valley Chinook salmon from the drought. All four of the Central Valley salmon runs - winter-run, spring-run, fall-run, and late fall-run - are in immediate peril because of the drought and poor water management. (

Tyrone Gorre of the Sierra Salmon Alliance, the first one to propose the emergency closure on the American this January, discussed how passage of salmon above the Central Valley dams must be provided under FERC processes in order for the fish to be restored. He urged the Commission and Department to work closely with Indian Tribes, the "strongest voices for the salmon," to rebuild salmon populations. 

The regulatory actions approved by the Commission will become effective upon approval by the state Office of Administrative Law (OAL). At the earliest, these emergency regulations will become effective in mid to late February.

In my testimony before the Commission, I said I supported the emergency closure on the American and other rivers while pointing out that bad water management contributed to the current problems on the American and other Central Valley rivers. 

The Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs, resulting in low flows and endangering salmon and steelhead in the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers while filling water banks and Southern California reservoirs. 

Last summer, high water releases down the Sacramento, Feather and American left Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. Shasta is at 36 percent of capacity and 54 percent of average; Oroville, 36 percent of capacity and 54 percent of average; and Folsom, 17 percent of capacity and 34 percent of average. 

Yet Pyramid Lake in Southern California is at 98 percent of capacity and 105 percent of average; and Castaic Reservoir, 86 percent of capacity and 105 percent of average. 

The state and federal water agencies exported massive quantities of water to corporate agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies, endangering local water supplies and fish populations as the ecosystem continues to collapse. 

Coastal and North Coast Streams Closed to Fishing

Below are the specifics on the coastal stream closures from the CDFW news release:  

Last week, CDFW closed some waters to fishing in order to protect native salmon and steelhead from low water flows in California streams and rivers that have been significantly impacted by drought. 

CDFW has the authority under Title 14, Article 4, Section 8.00(c) to close south central coast streams to fishing from December 1 through March 7 when it determines that stream flows are inadequate to provide fish passage for migrating steelhead trout and salmon. 

As a result, the following waters are closed to angling until March 7 or until stream flows are sufficient to allow fish passage for returning adult steelhead and salmon (to determine whether or not these waters are open to fishing, please call the south central coast closure hotline at (831) 649-2886): 

Pescadero Creek and all anadromous reaches of San Mateo County coastal streams normally open for fishing, from Elliot Creek through Milagro Creek. 

The San Lorenzo River and all its tributaries, as well as all anadromous reaches of coastal streams normally open for fishing in Santa Cruz County from the San Lorenzo River on North through Waddell Creek. 

Aptos and Soquel Creeks (Santa Cruz County). 
The Pajaro River and Uvas, Llagas and Corralitos Creeks (Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties). 

The Carmel River and those sections of San Jose, Gibson, Malpaso and Soberanes creeks west of Highway 1. 

The Big Sur River and those Big Sur area streams from Granite Creek to Salmon Creek west of Highway 1. 

The main stem of the Salinas River below its confluence with the Arroyo Seco River and the Arroyo Seco River (Monterey County). 

In addition, CDFW has the authority under Title 14, Article 4, Section 8.00(a) to close north coast streams to fishing when it determines that the flow at any of the designated gauging stations is less than minimum flows stated in regulation through January 31. Today, the Commission decided to extend the end date of that authority to April 30. 

As a result, the following north coast streams will be subject to angling closures until April 30 upon OAL approval (to determine whether or not these waters are open to fishing, please call the north coast closure hotline at (707) 822-3164): 

The main stem Eel River from the paved junction of Fulmor Road with the Eel River to the South Fork Eel River. 

The South Fork of the Eel River downstream from Rattlesnake Creek and the Middle Fork Eel River downstream from the Bar Creek. 

The main stem Van Duzen River from its junction with the Eel River to the end of Golden Gate Drive near Bridgeville. 

The main stem Mad River from the Hammond Trail Railroad Trestle to Cowan Creek. 

The main stem of the Mattole River from the mouth to Honeydew Creek. 

The main stem of Redwood Creek from the mouth to its confluence with Bond Creek. 

The main stem Smith River from the mouth of Rowdy Creek to the mouth of Patrick Creek (tributary of the Middle Fork Smith River); the South Fork Smith River from the mouth upstream approximately 1,000 feet to the County Road (George Tyron) bridge and Craig’s Creek to its confluence with Jones Creek; and the North Fork Smith River from the mouth to its confluence with Stony Creek. 

Under Title 14, Article 4, Section 8.00(b) the following central coast streams, which are currently subject to angling closures through April 1, upon approval by OAL will now be subject to angling closures until April 30 (to determine whether or not these waters are open to fishing, please call the central coast closure hotline at (707) 944-5533): 
Sonoma Creek (Sonoma County), and all streams tributary to the Pacific Ocean (and its bay) in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties, except the Russian River. 

Napa River (Napa County) between Trancas Avenue in Napa and Oakville Cross Bridge near Yountville. 

These closures affect recreational fishing only as there are no commercial fisheries in California’s inland rivers. This is the first time the Department and Commission have taken this type of emergency action due to drought. 

The closures listed above represent only about five percent of the fishable rivers in the state. There are still plenty of opportunities for California anglers to catch fish in the state’s rivers and streams. Additionally, California’s coast offers substantial ocean fishing. Both are subject to current regulations already in place. For more on fishing in California, please visit

Current low stream flow conditions will prevent the movement of migrating anadromous fish. Stream flows in many systems are inadequate to allow passage of spawning adults, increasing their vulnerability to mortality from predation, physiological stress and angling. Furthermore, survival of eggs and juvenile fish in these systems over the coming months is likely to be extremely low if the current drought conditions continue. These angling closures on selected streams will increase survival of adult wild steelhead and salmon. 

With California facing its driest year on record, Governor Brown declared a drought State of Emergency last month and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages. Last week, the state took action to conserve water in numerous Northern California reservoirs to meet minimum needs for operations that impact the environment and the economy.

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