Power to make emergency closures for at-risk fisheries extended

SAN DIEGO — An emergency action to protect California’s fisheries amidst the state’s historic drought will be extended for another 90 days.

The California Fish and Game Commission unanimously approved on Dec. 10 the extension of emergency regulations for at-risk fisheries plagued by low water levels and threatened fish populations.

State officials will be working on establishing permanent regulations to allow the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) to be able to respond to at-risk fisheries whenever drastic conditions occur and without requiring Fish and Game Commission action or concurrence.

“Conditions could become degraded and may require temporary restrictions on the fishery to be able to sustain future opportunities. We need a quick response mechanism,” said Stafford Lehr, DFW’s chief of Inland and Anadromous Fisheries.

He added the department would need to be able to act without having to rely upon the commission, particularly if multiple fisheries need immediate attention.

Giving DFW autonomous ability to protect fisheries during extreme drought conditions similar to what California experienced in 2014 and 2015 would allow the department to quickly respond to resources in need of protection.

State officials, for example, tried to declare an emergency action at the American River near Sacramento during the height of the current drought. The action took 45 days to implement.

Lehr presented to commissioners the conditions DFW staff would be able to declare a fishery at-risk.

Department officials could close an at-risk fishery under certain emergency conditions, such as whether migratory fish are unable to pass through a certain area (particularly for species where migration is part of its “life history trait”).

A fishery can be shut down when the water level of a lake, pond or reservoir is less than 10 percent capacity or if the adult breeding population is below 50 individuals for a subpopulation or 500 for a meta-population.

Re-opening a fishery must meet even more stringent criteria, according the Lehr. The department seeks to avoid re-opening a fishery only to have to shut it down again.

A shut down fishery will not be re-opened, for example, unless the water temperature does not exceed 70 degrees for more than eight hours for 14 consecutive days. Distilled oxygen levels in affected waterways must be at 5 milligrams per liter or higher for 14 consecutive days or longer, as well.

The original emergency regulations adopted by the Fish and Game Commission in July did not allow a fishery to remain open if the water temperature exceeded 70 degrees for more 8 hours during a three-day stretch.

“I think we have exhibited under the emergency conditions that we acted in a judicious and prudent manner. We only closed one river system,” Lehr told commissioners. “We’re looking to ensure fisheries are protected from increased angling pressure under critical environmental conditions.”

Washington and Oregon have similar provisions in place, according to Lehr.

“We have to adapt quickly and well,” Commissioner Eric Sklar said. “I like the concept of this, the flexibility, the thoughtfulness of the regulation so it allows flexibility and allow to move quickly. This is what we’ll have to do regularly now.”

The emergency regulations adopted last summer were set to expire Dec. 29.

Commissioners approved the 90-day extension as part of its two-day meeting in San Diego.

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