Today NRDC released a report with commercial and recreational fishermen entitled “Fish Out of Water: How Water Management in the Bay-Delta Threatens the Future of California’s Salmon Fishery.” The report, available online here, details the role played by California’s state and federal water projects in the decline of salmon and in this year’s closure of the salmon fishery (the first time that the fishery has been entirely closed in the state’s history, and the reason why it's impossible to find local, wild California salmon on restaurant menus or markets).
The report notes that state's leading fishery biologist has warned that we may permanently lose the salmon fishery in California if we don't change the way we manage water. We lost the coho salmon fishery in California 15 years ago, and even though the fishery has been closed since then, the fish have not returned. What we do in the next several years will determine the fate of these fish and the communities that depend on them.
Yet despite this year's closure of the salmon fishery, which was due to record low numbers of salmon returning to spawn, and the likelihood of the fishery continuing to be closed next year, the report lays out several actions that state and federal agencies are considering that could make things even worse for salmon.
Since 2000, as record amounts of water was pumped from the Delta, salmon populations – as well as other species, like delta smelt and longfin smelt – have crashed. Despite state and federal policies mandating the doubling of salmon populations, since enactment of that goal nearly 20 years ago water diversions have increased, and salmon populations have decreased.
If we’re going to prevent a permanent closure of the salmon fishery and prevent more salmon runs being listed as endangered species – if instead, we want to return abundant salmon runs to our rivers, to our fishing lines, and to our dinner plates – we must change the way we manage water in California. From the massive pumps in the Delta that suck in juvenile salmon, to dams that block access to spawning grounds and reservoirs that reduce flows of cold, clear water needed to spawn and migrate, the water projects play a critical role in the decline of salmon. The water projects aren't the only cause of the decline, but they play an important -- and preventable -- role.
In order to ensure sustainable futures for farmers, fishermen, and all of California, we must reduce water diversions from the Delta and invest in fish-friendly sources of water supply, what we're calling the virtual river. Let's hope that salmon become more of the debate than they have thus far, because right now, the proposals aren't looking good for this iconic fish.