What Happened To The Wild Salmon?

chinook salmon california sacramento river

There's a crisis along the Pacific coast. Wild salmon have vanished.

For seafood lovers, that means salmon may be very expensive this spring and summer - if you can find it at all.

It could also mean the collapse of a $150 million group of fisheries. And no one's sure what happened.

At fishing docks in California, the news is hitting fisherman like a tidal wave, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"I would say it's the worst disaster ever in the history of salmon fishing," said Don Hansen of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Salmon have almost disappeared from the most important river system on the West Coast. So virtually all salmon fishing there will be banned this year.

"Pretty astounding," said Fisherman Ernie Koepf. "It's never happened before."

Most salmon caught on the California and Oregon coast begin their lives in the Sacramento River - and return there to spawn.

But for the past three years the number of returning salmon has plunged more than 75 percent, from more than 800,000 to less than 200,000.

Hansen heads the advisory council that has decided the only way to save the salmon is to leave them in the ocean.

"There's a lot of finger-pointing, but nobody can really put their arms around what caused the disaster," Hansen said.

Among the suspected causes are huge amounts of water pumped from the Sacramento River to irrigate farms. Fisherman say all the water taken from the river means many young salmon never make it to the ocean.

"As it gets worse and worse and worse, more and more and more pumped, then you're going to see less and less and less salmon," said Fisherman Larry Collins. "It's that simple."

Others say growing populations of sea lions get part of the blame ... they have a huge appetite for salmon.

Researchers cite as many as 46 different factors that could be hurting the salmon. But for fishermen, it comes down to one big problem: Jobs.

"We don't know what we're going to do," Collins said. "We don't know what we're gonna do."

For consumers, it means higher prices and possible shortages of wild salmon. But most salmon we buy now is farm-raised and won't be affected.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.