California Making Progress Restoring Salmon and Salmon Fishing

In 2008 and 2009, for the first time in California’s history, our state’s salmon fishery was completely closed.  Fishery managers implemented the closure because alarmingly low numbers of salmon returned to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.  Even though salmon hatcheries released up to 30 million juvenile salmon each year, fewer than 60,000 fish returned in 2009, a dramatic decline from the nearly 900,000 salmon that returned in 2002.  

As a result of the closure, fishing boats remained tied up at the docks, and consumers couldn’t buy or eat wild, California salmon.  Governor Schwarzenegger estimated that the fishery closures resulted in thousands of lost jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income each year.  The fishery in Oregon was also curtailed, causing economic impacts to fishermen and businesses in Oregon as well.  Although there was a very limited salmon fishery in 2010, the commercial fishery lasted only a few days. 

Thankfully, fishery managers estimate that salmon populations have rebounded from the record low levels of recent years, and as a result, California should have a decent fishery in 2011.   This year’s salmon population is the first to benefit from pumping restrictions in the Bay-Delta designed to protect endangered species (pumping limits were first implemented in 2008, and were expected to benefit salmon).  While better ocean conditions in the last several years likely played a role as well, conditions in the ocean don’t matter if river conditions won’t support healthy runs.  Young fish must first survive their outmigration down Central Valley Rivers and through the Delta.  Then three years later, adults migrate back upstream as adults to their fresh water spawning grounds.  That’s why improved conditions for salmon in our rivers and the Bay-Delta estuary are so important. 

NRDC is celebrating the fact that we’re making progress in restoring our salmon populations, and I’m looking forward to going salmon fishing and to eating wild, California salmon for the first time in three years.  Compared to the last several years, things look pretty good, but we have more work to do to restore California’s salmon populations and our state’s salmon fishery. 

First, this year’s return is still below average: the Pacific Fishery Management Council has noted that the forecasted number of salmon this year is “slightly lower than the average Sacramento Index (SI) for years 1983-2010.” (see page 12 of Preseason Report II)   If salmon numbers this year are lower than predicted (as they have been in recent years), we’ll be even further below average as compared to the last several decades.

Second, the fishery itself will be less than the average of the past several decades: our analysis comparing historic harvest levels with estimated levels shows that the commercial harvest is likely to be lower than every year from 1983 to 2005, and that the recreational harvest is likely to be lower than most years in the 1990s and early 2000s.  So while we’ll have a good fishery this year compared to the past several, it’s still not enough to sustain the thriving fishing industry that we had before the record Delta pumping of the early 2000s.

Third, this year’s number of fall run Chinook salmon, which form the backbone of California’s salmon fishery, marks substantial progress towards achieving the salmon doubling requirements of state and federal law.  But California’s other salmon runs in the Central Valley – particularly winter run Chinook and spring run Chinook, both of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act – are in terrible shape, at their lowest levels in a decade or more.  Restoring the health of these other runs is important to the long term reliability of the salmon fishery, because the diversity of these runs helps protect against a bad year for any single run, similar to a diversified investment portfolio.  And the salmon returning this year have not received the benefits of the full suite of protections in the 2009 salmon biological opinion, which include habitat restoration, improved flow conditions, and water temperature requirements.  We should see benefits from these protections in the salmon biological opinion in the next few years, but as the National Academy of Sciences panel noted (which concluded that the measures in the biological opinion generally were "scientifically justified"), it will take time to rebuild these populations.

Finally, some members of Congress are seeking to override scientifically designed protections for salmon and other endangered species in the Bay-Delta estuary, eliminating protections in order to benefit certain large agricultural water districts.  These legislative efforts could devastate California’s salmon fishery, our environment, and our heritage – as well as adversely affecting other water users

A single year like 2011 doesn’t guarantee good returns in the future.  We need to keep working to restore flows and salmon habitat, and continue to balance how we manage our water resources so we can sustain farming, fishing, and families.  But 2011 shows that we can – and are – making progress in restoring California’s salmon heritage.  So let’s celebrate progress in restoring our salmon populations; after a three year wait, I’m eagerly anticipating my first summer barbeque with wild, California salmon. 

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