New Index Shows Federal Agencies Fail to Meet Salmon Restoration Goal

Federal law requiring almost a million salmon ignored at great expense to Bay-Delta ecosystem and fishing industry

San Francisco, CA (November 13, 2012)  – The Central Valley Chinook salmon fishery has suffered a dramatic collapse over the past decade, now standing at only 13 percent of the population goal required by federal law, according to a new salmon index released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Golden Gate Salmon Association. The index is being released following the closure of California’s ocean salmon fishing season on Sunday, and the 20th anniversary of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a key federal salmon restoration statute.

“Salmon are the canary in the coal mine for the Bay-Delta economy and ecosystem,” says Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst with NRDC’s Water Program. “California salmon, the fishing industry and the Bay-Delta ecosystem all need adequate water flows to maintain their health over the long-term. The Department of the Interior and the State of California need to dramatically step-up efforts to protect the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem and restore salmon populations.”

The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, passed by Congress in 1992, set a goal of doubling the Bay-Delta watershed’s salmon runs from 495,000 to 990,000 wild adult fish by 2002. A decade after the law’s deadline, the salmon fishery continues to struggle to rebound due, in part, to ineffective enforcement by federal and state agencies and continued excessive pumping of fresh water from the Bay-Delta, primarily for industrial agriculture in the Central Valley.

The NRDC and GGSA analysis, published in the Salmon Doubling Index, reveals a steady decline in Bay-Delta Chinook salmon from 2003 through 2010, at which point it reached a record low of 7 percent. Increased water diversions were a significant cause of this decline. Between 2000 and 2006, freshwater pumping from the Bay-Delta increased 20 percent in comparison to 1975-2000.

“Despite indefensible foot-dragging and countless lawsuits, salmon restoration has remained the lynchpin of federal water policy in California for twenty years,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the House author of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. “California salmon support businesses and communities up and down the West coast, and it’s long past time for the federal agencies to take their responsibility to our state’s wild fisheries seriously. The federal government must restore California’s iconic salmon runs to health: that’s the law.”

In 2008, in response to a lawsuit brought by NRDC, Earthjustice and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, stronger federal court-ordered protections went into effect for salmon and other native fish, reducing water pumping from the Bay-Delta. In 2011, there was a modest rebound of wild adult Chinook salmon, directly correlating to this reduction in pumping. Chinook salmon have a three-year life cycle. As a result, the benefits of stronger protections in 2008 are reflected in the numbers of adult fish that returned to spawn in 2011.

Early federal agency projections predict stronger numbers for this year’s salmon run, which is currently underway. Nevertheless, the salmon index for 2012 will likely remain dramatically short of meeting state and federal goals.

“Our salmon runs are essential to California’s natural heritage, to fishing families and to an industry that reaches from the fishing dock to your dinner table,” said Victor Gonella, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “Restoring healthy salmon runs means healthy local food, healthy communities and a healthy economy.”

If current laws were enforced and the mandated restoration goal was achieved, the salmon fishing industry would provide a large contribution to the California economy. Consisting of commercial fishing men and women, fresh and salt water recreational anglers, coastal communities, tribes, fish processors, equipment manufacturers, marinas, and food and hospitality, a fully restored California salmon industry would provide $5.6 billion in economic activity annually and tens of thousands of jobs from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.

“After two closed salmon fishing seasons in 2008 and 2009, and a token season in 2010, fishermen had a chance to fish this year, but we remain far below the healthy runs required by law,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and GGSA board member. “The stronger runs in 2011 and this year show that, with stronger protections and more effective restoration programs, these magnificent fish will come roaring back.”


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 CVPIA water contracts and revamp its salmon doubling 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 state’s Department of Water Resources should incorporate salmon doubling into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan process. 
  • The Department of Fish and Game should launch an ambitious state salmon restoration effort.  
  • The Department of the Interior should aggressively implement NRDC’s agreement to restore the salmon run on the San Joaquin River.

The Salmon Doubling Index graphic and a table listing the index by year can be found here

Learn about the methodology used to develop the Salmon Doubling Index in Kelly Coplin’s blog.

Read more about the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in Barry Nelson’s blogs here and here.

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