The Future of California’s Salmon Fishery in Doubt?

In today’s Sacramento Bee, reporter Matt Weiser writes about the future of California’s fall run Chinook salmon, which forms the backbone of the salmon fishery in California and Oregon. 

Unfortunately, the news doesn’t look very good. 

2008 set the record for the fewest number of returning fall run Chinook salmon in California’s history.  Although experts thought the salmon population would start to rebound in 2009, it’s looking like 2009 could be as bad, or worse, than 2008.  And there’s a possibility that salmon fishing could be prohibited in 2010, although it’s still too early to know for sure (we’ll all find out this Spring). 

For the past two years, recreational and commercial fishermen have been unable to fish for salmon, as the fishery was closed to allow the population to rebound from these historically low levels.  Salmon populations collapsed in 2007, as a result of unsustainable water management in the Central Valley (including record levels of water exported from the Delta and dams blocking salmon spawning habitat) and poor ocean conditions.  Fishing businesses across the State, particularly along the Central and Northern California coasts, have been hammered by the closure, from mom and pop bait and tackle shops to recreational fishing guides, from commercial salmon fishermen to the hotels and restaurants that depend on recreational salmon fishermen for their livelihoods.  

The State estimated that the salmon fishery closure cost nearly 2,700 people their jobs, and cost than $279M in 2009, with similar impacts in 2008.  The fishing industry pegs the numbers much higher. But either way, the numbers don’t tell the story of how the closure affected individual lives and fishing communities. (The LA Times did a nice piece in December about the impacts on Ft. Bragg, a small coastal fishing town a couple hours North of San Francisco, but there hasn’t been much coverage on TV news).   All of these folks have sacrificed the past two years to allow these magnificent fish to rebound, so they – and everyone else in California – could go fishing for salmon with their kids, or for their livelihoods, in the future.

In 2008, NRDC warned that unsustainable water management in the Bay-Delta threatened the future of California’s salmon fishery.  But as we noted in our report, it doesn’t need to be this way: we can restore the salmon fishery and still meet California’s water needs, by investing in smart, 21st century water solutions like water efficiency, groundwater cleanup, water recycling, and urban stormwater management.   That's still true today.

But things have gotten so bad for salmon that the Sac Bee story actually discusses listing the fall run Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act.  That could be devastating for the State's salmon fishery, not to mention everyone who likes to eat local, wild salmon.

In the early 1990s California’s salmon populations tanked, although not as badly as they have now, and winter and spring run salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act.  But with passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (which dedicated more water to remain in-river to protect migrating salmon, improved spawning habitats, and made other operational changes) and the end of the last drought, salmon populations rebounded.  Unfortunately, in more recent years, as water exports from the Delta reached record high levels, salmon populations began to shrink, finally collapsing in the past few years.

Let’s hope that the recent changes to state and federal policies in the Delta are enough to bring salmon (and the salmon fishery) back, and to ensure that the fishermen’s sacrifice of the past two years was an investment in our future, not a sacrifice in vain.