Hook, line and sinker

Salmon fishermen take issue with a lawsuit to halt the 2011 fishing season

Bill Divens caught this beauty, a chinook (king) salmon, on the Rogue River in Gold Beach, Ore., this past September. The Red Bluff-based fishing guide is looking forward to hitting the Sacramento River this year.

Bill Divens caught this beauty, a chinook (king) salmon, on the Rogue River in Gold Beach, Ore., this past September. The Red Bluff-based fishing guide is looking forward to hitting the Sacramento River this year.

PHOTO Courtesy of bill divens

Bait it up: A commercial ocean salmon season opened May 1 and a recreational river season for chinook salmon is scheduled to begin on July 16. For more info, visit www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/oceansalmon.asp.

Mike Bogue saw most of his income vanish in 2008. That was the year that officials closed California’s ocean and river salmon seasons in response to a dramatic decline in fish populations, and Bogue—a sport-fishing guide in Redding—lost his main livelihood.

To make ends meet, he has been taking clients catch-and-release fishing for wild rainbow trout on the Sacramento River.

But the Sacramento’s chinook salmon seem to be staging a comeback. A successful return of spawners showed last fall, and biologists believe large numbers of fish are now holding in coastal waters and will move upstream to spawn in the fall. Based on such estimates, on May 1 federal officials opened the first full-length commercial ocean salmon season since 2007.

Five days later, a group of water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley sued to stop it.

The lawsuit, filed on May 5 against the federal government by a group of 22 water and irrigation districts called the San Joaquin River Group Authority, makes the case that resumed ocean fishing could have an adverse effect on salmon numbers, especially the federally threatened spring-run chinook. If fishing does dent their numbers, the plaintiffs say, officials might impose new restrictions on the pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the salmon. Many farmers who gain their livelihoods from water removed from the delta via two large pumps near Tracy would suffer.

Ken Petruzzelli, a Chico attorney representing the plaintiffs, sent an e-mail on April 20 to the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, both defendants in the case, that spells out the concerns of the plaintiffs.

“The [San Joaquin River Group Authority’s] member agencies have no wish to give up water … to mitigate for ocean fishing,” Petruzzelli wrote.

Bogue, who has lost 80 percent of his income since sport fishing for salmon was largely closed in 2008, notes the insincerity of the lawsuit. “They don’t want to see the salmon go on the endangered species list, but not because they care about the fish,” he said. “They want to keep their water, because water is money.”

Fishermen statewide have lashed back in response to the lawsuit, alleging it was water diversions at the delta’s two large pumping facilities that damaged fish habitat and caused the Sacramento River’s fall-run chinook salmon to collapse in the first place.

Another local fishing guide, Bill Divens in Red Bluff, thinks the lawsuit is an elaborate public-relations maneuver to divert attention from the effects that water pumping has had on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers’ ecosystems.

“It’s meant to distract people from the real problems affecting the rivers,” said Divens, who still takes customers trout fishing on Shasta Lake but has otherwise moved his guide service to Oregon’s Rogue River. “The water agencies are just saying it’s not their fault that the salmon almost disappeared. First they said it was striped bass. Now they’re blaming commercial fishermen. Next they’ll say it’s the yellow-legged frog’s fault.”

Allen Short, the coordinator of the San Joaquin River Group Authority, believes that salmon runs crashed several years ago due in part to overfishing. Fish numbers, according to biologists, now seem to be on the upswing, and Short believes this is a direct result of three consecutive years without substantial fishing seasons. Short has suggested delaying fishing for another year to further help the runs.

But Michael O’Farrell, a research scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, says overfishing has not been a problem for California’s salmon populations. He recently helped produce a report in which a team of biologists determined that overfishing in 2007 did not play a role in the decline of salmon numbers, which hit their lowest recorded levels in 2009.

O’Farrell added that salmon-season limits and regulations are rewritten every year, and he says the salmon fishery is among the most carefully regulated fisheries on the West Coast. Measures like minimum size limits and the season schedule, he says, are designed to minimize angler contact with the Sacramento’s imperiled salmon runs.

Officials entirely banned fishing after spawning returns of the fall-run chinook took a nosedive about four years ago. Many fishermen even welcomed the closures while demanding restrictions on water pumping in the delta to improve spawning and smolt-rearing habitat.

But a fourth year of unemployment could sink many commercial fishermen into bankruptcy, says Mike Hudson, a commercial salmon fisherman in Berkeley.

“We’ve been fishing for other things, and a few pounds of rockfish or black cod might keep the boat running and food on the table, but it’s nothing to make real money off of,” Hudson said. “If I was forced to quit fishing now after getting my boat all ready, I’d be totally busted.”

Peter Moyle, a UC Davis fisheries biologist, says that salmon populations—especially small ones—can be affected by overfishing. But the Sacramento’s fall run, he says, is produced largely by the work of hatcheries. Such runs, Moyle says, are very resilient.

“You can catch 75 or 80 percent of a hatchery population as long as just a few fish are allowed to get back to the hatcheries,” he said.

Moyle is one of many experts who believe that problems in the rivers where salmon spawn and where the juveniles must spend the first months of their lives caused the near-disappearance of salmon. Indeed, the delta’s two large pumps removed record-high levels of water between 2003 and 2006. In the years that followed, the fall-run chinook salmon population plunged; nearly 800,000 adult fish returned to spawn in 2002; just 39,000 did so in 2009.

Now, the fish may be rebounding. Last fall, 163,000 salmon returned to the Sacramento to spawn. Officials had incorrectly predicted a much higher return, however, and many people have grown skeptical of biologists’ abundance estimates. Still, the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s estimate that approximately a million salmon, mostly from the Sacramento’s fall run, are now holding in coastal waters has fishermen hopeful that the runs may be returning.

The plaintiffs in the San Joaquin River Group Authority’s lawsuit, which is now pending in a U.S. District Court in Fresno, say that salmon fishing violates the federal laws that protect imperiled fish populations and will hamper the task of rebuilding the runs.

In the very midst of such accusations, the Center for Biological Diversity reported last month that the delta’s two major pumps—which provide for farmland and urban development to the south—have killed more than 10,000 juvenile spring-run chinook this year, though a federal official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told this reporter that many of the dead salmon may have been fall-run fish.

Furthering the drama, San Joaquin Valley Republicans introduced congressional legislation on May 11 that proposes to exempt these very pumps from fish-protecting regulations. If such maneuvers win out, and if river management policies are not improved, the rebounding salmon population could easily crash again, warns Dick Pool, president of the Bay Area conservation group Water4Fish.

“Shutting down the season is not the way to bring these fish back,” said Pool, who considers the lawsuit a waste of time, resources and taxpayer money. “It’s the health of the river that matters. If the river conditions don’t change, these salmon could still head to extinction.”