Bay Delta Salmon Population Just One-Fifth its Target Size

Federal and State Agencies Failing to Meet Salmon Restoration Goal

SAN FRANCISCO (May 13, 2013) – As California’s prized Central Valley Chinook salmon are arriving in markets and restaurants this week, a new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Golden Gate Salmon Association reveals that the salmon fishery is limping along at only 20 percent of the population goal required by state and federal law. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, passed by Congress in 1992, set a goal of rebuilding salmon runs to almost a million adult fish by 2002. More than a decade past the law’s deadline, the salmon fishery continues to struggle due, in large part, to excessive pumping of fresh water from the Bay-Delta that deprives salmon of the cold, flowing rivers and healthy habitat they need to thrive.

“After two closed salmon fishing seasons in 2008 and 2009, and a token season in 2010, fishermen are fishing again, but we remain far below the abundant runs required by law,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and GGSA board member. “Stronger Delta pumping restrictions are paying off but we have to finish the job and get these salmon runs rebuilt.”

These results are only marginally better than the 12 percent of salmon produced in 2011, when NRDC and GGSA released the first analysis of the Central Valley Chinook salmon population goals. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act specifically directs the U.S. Department of the Interior to protect, restore, and enhance fish in the Central Valley of California. That means rebuilding salmon populations from 495,000 to 990,000 wild adult fish by 2002.

“This year our industry will only get a fraction of what our state and federal governments are supposed to be producing, “said John McManus, executive director of GGSA. “We’re having a hard time living on 22 percent of the legally required salmon population. Balance could be restored by reallocating a fairly small amount of water which would give us healthy salmon runs, healthy local food, healthy communities and a healthy economy.”

Central Valley Chinook salmon declined drastically from 2003 through 2010, reaching a record low of 7 percent of the required population level. This decline in the fishery corresponded with a 20 percent increase in water diversions from salmon habitat over levels from the preceding quarter century. Forecasts suggest 2013’s salmon returns will again fall far below what the law requires.

“Many large agribusinesses in California will get 100 percent of their contract water supplies this year, despite the low snowpack and lack of rain,” said Kate Poole, Senior Attorney with NRDC. “California’s struggling salmon population and the fishing industry will not be so lucky. The Interior Department and the State are providing fishermen only 22 percent of their promised yield.  It’s possible to get salmon back on track, but federal and state agencies need to dramatically step-up restoration efforts in order to achieve it.”

If current laws were enforced, a restored salmon fishery would generate billions in new revenue and add thousands of jobs from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon. These jobs are tied to commercial fishing men and women, fresh and salt water recreational anglers, coastal communities, tribes, fish processors, equipment manufacturers, marinas, and food and hospitality services.


State and federal agencies can step-up their efforts to restore salmon by acting on the following recommendations:

  • The Department of the Interior should reform Central Valley Project water contracts and revamp its salmon rebuilding efforts in response to a scathing independent review. Specifically, Interior should better manage water and restoration funds dedicated to salmon recovery, incorporate the latest scientific information and appoint a manager to be accountable for the progress of the restoration program.
  • The State Water Resources Control Board should set stronger standards to protect salmon in the San Joaquin River and the Bay-Delta ecosystem, in proceedings to revise these standards that are currently underway.
  • The California Department of Water Resources should incorporate salmon doubling into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process.
  • The California Department of Fish and Wildlife should launch an ambitious state salmon restoration effort.
  • The U.S. Department of the Interior should aggressively implement NRDC’s agreement to restore the salmon run on the San Joaquin River.