SACRAMENTO -- Taking an even more aggressive approach to protecting drought-stricken fish, state wildlife officials on Wednesday tightened already unprecedented restrictions on recreational fishing in Northern California.
The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to extend shutdowns along the northern coast until the spring to safeguard threatened steelhead and endangered coho salmon. The commission also expanded the prohibition to include most of the Russian River in the North Bay and key spawning habitat in the American River east of Sacramento.
The prohibitions could have a significant impact on local economies in the northern counties of Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte, home to the state's top spots for steelhead fishing. From the Golden Gate south to San Luis Obispo County, the closures may help prevent the coho from slipping into extinction.
Charlton Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, acknowledged the bans will be difficult for anglers and rural towns whose livelihoods depend on steelhead fishing during the winter. But, he added, the fishing community is overwhelmingly supportive of the state's intervention.
"We've never been in a situation like this before," said Bonham of Fish and Wildlife, which announced last week that it had closed dozens of rivers and streams. On Wednesday it asked the commission to use its emergency authority to take additional steps. All told, these policies include: --Closing the main stems of the Eel, Van Duzen, Mad, Mattole and Smith rivers on the northern coast during dry conditions through April 30. Whenever rain raises water flows above minimum levels, these rivers will reopen.
Despite these shutdowns, most of the state's rivers and creeks will remain open to fishing. Only about 5 percent of fishing spots will be closed, Bonham said.
But on the north coast, the shutdowns will be keenly felt. Scott Heemstra, manager of King's Sport & Tackle in Guerneville, estimates 80 percent to 90 percent of the store's winter business is related to fishing on the Russian River, where water flows have fallen to their lowest levels since measurements were first taken in the 1950s.
"It's definitely going to be an economic crunch for two months," Heemstra said this week. Still, he added, "We're better off not having (steelhead) for two months than seeing them go away forever."
Farther north, the trickle-down effect of the closures will be enormous, said John Klar, a fishing guide based in Fortuna, which sits along the Eel River in Humboldt County. People come from all over California and the rest of the United States to fish steelhead, supporting not only guides and tackle shops but also hotels and restaurants.
"We're all going to feel it," said Klar, who could lose anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 this winter due to canceled fishing trips. "But is it necessary? One hundred percent, yes. It is necessary to protect these fish because they are pretty easy prey right now."
There are tight restrictions in California on fishing steelhead, a popular sport fish that is related to the rainbow trout but spends much of its life in the ocean. Depending on the stream, anglers may catch a limited number per day, and only hatchery-raised fish. Wild fish must be released.
Coho cannot be caught anywhere in California. Along the central coast, including San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, they are a federally listed endangered species.
The Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project runs a hatchery on Scott Creek in Santa Cruz County that is the only thing standing between the Central California Coast coho and annihilation. Mat Rowley, chairman of the project's board of directors, said he's heard from anglers who are frustrated by the fishing ban, but they understand the need for it.
"It makes sense to give every fish every opportunity to succeed," Rowley said, "in whatever way they can."