Coho Salmon Identification is Critical in California’s Ocean Fisheries

Media Contacts:
David Moore, DFG Region 3, (707) 766-8380
Andrew Hughan, DFG Communications, (916) 322-8944

The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) reminds sport anglers to be vigilant about properly identifying their salmon before keeping them. The ocean salmon fishing season in California is well under way and proper identification is critical for the survival of a protected species of salmon.

Coho salmon

Coho salmon

Chinook (or king) salmon is the primary species targeted in California’s ocean waters (although a few pink salmon are caught occasionally). However, the retention of coho (or silver) salmon is prohibited in all California ocean fisheries, specifically to protect central coast and southern Oregon-northern California coast coho stocks. Both stocks are severely declining and listed under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

Coho salmon have existed in California coastal waters for thousands of years. Today, however, their populations have declined to just a fraction of their historical levels, endangered by a wide range of factors. Coho salmon populations along the coast from the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz County north to the Smith River in Del Norte County have reached a critical state of decline. Spawner escapement numbers are below those required for sustainable populations and constitute a crisis for coho salmon survival on the California coast.

In most years, sport anglers begin catching coho salmon in the ocean fishery around mid-May. Coho catches generally peak during June and then gradually decline throughout the remainder of summer. Although some of these fish may have originated from hatcheries in Oregon and Washington, many are native California coho and any retention in California ocean fisheries has been prohibited since 1995. California ocean fisheries are managed to provide for the maximum access to abundant Chinook stocks while still protecting depressed California coho populations.

Sport fishing enthusiasts can significantly help California coho stocks by taking the time to correctly identify each salmon caught before removing it from the water (netting or dropping a coho salmon onto the deck of a boat can cause both scale loss and trauma that will likely reduce its chance of survival when released). Coho salmon should be identified through examination of mouth and gums. The base of the bottom teeth on a Chinook salmon are all black whereas coho salmon have a narrow light gray band. A photo guide is viewable online at http://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=36125&inline=true. Although not as often caught in ocean waters, steelhead cannot be targeted or taken during the ocean salmon season. Steelhead show no black color on lower jaw and tongue.

To help avoid coming in contact with coho salmon, anglers should rig their lines to fish deeper as coho are more often found in the top 30 feet of water. Anglers should plan to fish nearer to shore for Chinook salmon as coho salmon are typically found farther offshore. Using larger lures that select for the larger Chinook salmon will also reduce coho salmon catch. The daily bag limit remains two salmon of any species except coho salmon. For complete ocean salmon regulations, please visit the Ocean Salmon webpage at www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/oceansalmon.asp or call the Ocean Salmon Regulations Hotline at (707) 576-3429.

Sport anglers are also reminded that coho salmon may also be found in coastal rivers and streams. Retention of coho salmon in any California inland salmon fishery has been prohibited since 1998. Protecting coho salmon in the ocean, as well as in streams and rivers, is an essential step in recovering this important salmon species.

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