SANTA CRUZ -- The sensitive populations of fish that spawn in Northern California's creeks and rivers are starting to suffer from the brutal drought threatening the state's water supplies.
In Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties, the National Marine Fisheries Service has heard reports of anglers catching endangered coho salmon trapped by low water flows. In the American River, water levels have dropped to a 20-year nadir, endangering the redds, or nests of eggs, laid by chinook salmon, a consumer staple that supports hundreds of Bay Area fishermen.
"We're sitting on pins and needles looking at the long-term weather forecast," said Jon Ambrose, a biologist with the fisheries service, "and it's not looking good."
Droughts are always bad news for salmonids, a group of fish that spend most of their lives in the ocean but reproduce in rivers and streams. In Northern California these fish include chinook and coho salmon as well as steelhead, an oceangoing relative of rainbow trout that is listed as federally threatened.
But this year's historically dry conditions are making life especially tough, not just for fish but for water managers who face unyielding demand from municipalities and farmers. When regulators mete out water from dwindling reservoirs, people usually take precedence over fish.
For coho, sandbars and dry creekbeds are blocking their passage to inland spawning grounds. On the San Lorenzo River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, there are reports of anglers accidentally hooking coho. Even if the fish are released, these struggles sap their energy, reducing their likelihood of reproductive success.
"Many fish are probably being caught again and again," said Chris Berry, who enforces environmental regulations for the Santa Cruz Water Department. He argues state and federal regulators should consider a temporary shutdown of fishing on the river.
California does not have a policy for low-flow fishing closures south of the Golden Gate, said Kevin Shaffer, a fisheries manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Fish and Game Commission may discuss expanding the state's closure policy in February, he said. Low water levels are plaguing salmonids in waterways throughout the state, Shaffer added, including the American, Eel and Russian rivers.
"If we don't get some rain," Shaffer said, "this spawning season is going to take a hit."
A poor spawning season could bring more hardship for the beleaguered chinook and people who catch them for a living. The commercial fishery has been slowly recovering since the population of fall-run chinook crashed in 2008, leading to three consecutive canceled or abbreviated fishing seasons.
John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a fishermen's advocacy group, said it's too early for fishermen -- and consumers of local wild salmon -- to panic. Heavy rains could still build the Sierra Nevada snowpack to levels approaching normal.
But with each day the situation grows more desperate. A National Weather Service forecaster said Monday there is no rain in the seven-day forecast and the outlook for January calls for below-average precipitation.
Ambrose, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, knows a watershed restorationist who gave $100 to the Mission San Juan Bautista in San Benito County, seeking prayers for rain.
"I hope our weather service is wrong," Ambrose said of a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast. "And it could change. It could change at any minute."