Salmon alliance

Bring together recreation fishermen, commercial fishermen, environmentalists and seafood restaurateurs, and you might expect arguments and conflict, especially when the fishery that they all are concerned about is in shambles. California's plummeting salmon fishery, however, is proving that fishermen and environmentalists can get along and work together.

On July 24, 2008, representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association (commercial fishermen) and Water 4 Fish (recreational fishermen) assembled at Scoma's Restaurant at San Francisco's legendary Fisherman's Wharf, to announce the release of a report "Fish Out of Water: How Water Management in the Bay-Delta Threatens the Future of California's Salmon Fishery." The 35-page report proclaims their alliance against a common enemy — dams and diversions — and offers a concrete set of pragmatic prescriptions to restore this once vital fishery.

And aside from a flock of TV cameras, the group had some cheering supporters — swarms of seagulls and a handful of barking sea lions. All seemed to agree that something needs to be done, and soon, otherwise this fishery may be just a memory.

Once, the run of king salmon that make their way through San Francisco Bay and into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers was the largest in North America — over a million fish a year passing through the Bay en route to the spawning grounds.

Up through the late 1980s annual runs were 500,000 to 750,000 a year, and commercial fishermen, sport fishermen and seafood restaurants were happy, as were the communities all along the coast whose economic vitality is tied to the sea and especially salmon.

But then the run started to decline sharply. In 1991, the four runs through the Bay were on the ropes — only about 200,000 spawners, total. All four runs could have classified for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Steps were taken. More water was made available for Central California Chinook salmon, and the fishery rebounded dramatically. In 1995, 780,000 spawning chinook salmon came into the system. Subsequent annual runs were 500,000 to 600,000. Everyone was happy. Then in 2006 the run dwindled. Less than 300,000 salmon came up the river. And in 2007, the total was about 150,000 fish. Salmon are a tough fish. Something was really wrong.

In early 2008, state and federal agencies closed the commercial salmon fishing season and almost all of the recreational salmon fishing season for California.

There are five species of Pacific salmon, and unfortunately, this is not the first Pacific salmon fishery to collapse. In 1993, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed coho salmon, which once were common, as an Endangered Species along the Central California Coast.

The California commercial fishery for coho salmon was closed in 1993, and the recreational fishery was closed in 1998. There is no immediate prospect for restoring this fishery, as habitat degradation is the principle cause of the coho decline.

With a backdrop of commercial and charter boats sitting in dock, tackle manufacturer and spokesman for Water4Fish.org Dick Pool, speaking for the state's 2.4 million recreational fishermen, declared, "The collapse of the salmon fishery is among the nation's worst man-made fishery disasters ever. It is on par with the Exxon Valdez spill or the closure of the New England cod fishery."

In a typical year, seafood lovers enjoy more than five million pounds of California salmon. This year, it is zero. Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which is the largest association of commercial fishermen on the West Coast, talked about how millions of Californians fish and are affected by the closure.

Fisherman, tackle suppliers, charter boat operators, fish processors and restauranteurs all depend on healthy salmon runs to sustain their livelihoods. The disappearance of the state's salmon fishery is estimated to be causing $255 million in economic losses and the loss of more than 2,200 jobs in California.

Kelley Bennett, chef and chief seafood purchaser for the legendary Scoma's Restaurant on Pier 47 at Fisherman's Wharf, spoke about how Scoma's, which had been in business since 1965, had always sought to use local, fresh seafood, with Dungeness crab and Chinook salmon being the most popular.

As Kelly was speaking, a seafood supply truck pulled up delivering the day's salmon — from Alaska.

"Six or seven years ago we paid $2.65 a pound for fresh daily salmon from these boats," Bennett said, nodding toward the commercial fishing boats in dock. "We even have our own boat."

The salmon that arrived by truck were going to cost Scoma's $10 a pound.

Everyone seemed to agree that the prospects for next year's fishery were not bright. But, if proper steps are taken, by 2010 a turnaround is possible. Those assembled agreed "water poaching," as well as conventional fish poaching, as a primary cause of the salmon crisis.

While doing something about global warming or ocean currents may not be possible, they all asserted that if state and federal governments take four steps the California salmon fishery can be restored. These are:

  1. Set Doubling the Salmon Run As The State's Goal — This would mean that all state agencies would have to develop plans in keeping with this goal. Right now many agencies that manage water in the Sacramento Drainage don't even mention "fish conservation" in their resource management plans.

  2. Reduce Water Diversions — A huge amount of freshwater coming down out of the Sierra's is diverted away to agriculture by canals, dams and aqueducts, which are changing the chemistry and ecology of the Sacramento River and Delta. Water conservation, management of storm waters, pollution control and reduced diversions must all be implemented as quickly as possible. Right now huge pumps are killing large numbers of young salmon — as much as 40 percent of the young salmon are killed by water projects before they reach the ocean, a federal judge recently found. Plans to export more water that were approved by the federal government in 2004 could increase mortality rates of some species by 66 percent.

  3. Reform Management of Water Projects — The alliance called for a new state agency to regulate operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project to ensure that doubling of the salmon population as a goal is followed. One step suggested is a water user fee for all water diversions, with money from that fee being channeled into salmon restoration.

  4. Restore Salmon to the San Joaquin River — Years ago, the Central Valley Project eliminated the spawning run of salmon on San Joaquin River. Restoring that run is very possible, but it is not being implemented.

There is Hope
There are a lot of grim faces in the California fishing community these days, but there are some signs of hope.

"The future of California's salmon fishery is completely dependent on how we manage water in the Bay-Delta ecosystem," said Doug Obegi, NRDC staff attorney and lead author of the report.

Clearly, this report is a call to action that deserves widespread support, and it seems to be coming in. Dick Pool reported that 61,531 fishermen had written letters to the state capital in support of saving the salmon fishery. Suggestions for such letters and what to say can be found at Water4Fish.org.

The dramatic recovery of the chinook salmon fishery in the early 1990s speaks to what is possible when an integrated conservation program is implemented. This spring, 22 million Chinook salmon smolts were released into San Francisco Bay in ways that drastically reduced depredation by striped bass and seals. Out in the blue Pacific, they may meet changing ocean currents, warming waters, and changes in food supply. This year has, so far, been a record-setting dry spell.

Just how many of those fish will come back upstream in 2-3 years is unsure, but hopefully they will encounter cleaner, more abundant freshwater, new streams to spawn in, and more game wardens to patrol the rivers to insure that poaching is minimal. If they do, chances are that in a few years California again will become the king salmon leader for the world.

The full report, "Fish Out of Water: How Water Management in the Bay-Delta Threatens the Future of California's Salmon Fishery," is available online at: www.nrdc.org/water/conservation/salmon/contents.asp.