Fishless future

A new UC Davis study predicts the demise of California’s native fisheries

The California golden trout is just one of many native fish imperiled by interaction with humans in the environment.

The California golden trout is just one of many native fish imperiled by interaction with humans in the environment.

Courtesy Of california trout

Two-thirds of California’s native fish species—salmon, steelhead and trout—may be extinct by the end of the century, if not sooner.

That’s the dire prediction contained in “SOS: California’s Native Fish Crisis,” a report released November 19 that is based on a two-year research study by a team of UC Davis scientists. They received support from the fish and watershed advocacy group California Trout.

If the report proves correct, it would mean that of the 32 native salmon and trout species, only 10 or 11 would still exist in 2100. Of those 32 species, 65 percent are found only in California. And of the state’s nine living native inland species, seven are in danger of extinction.

The report’s author is UC Davis professor Dr. Peter Moyle, a widely known expert on California’s water systems and the fish that inhabit them.

It’s not just the fish we should be concerned about, Moyle states. That their stocks are in unprecedented decline and teetering toward extinction, he writes, is “an alarm bell that signals the deteriorating health of the state’s rivers and streams that provide drinking water to millions of Californians.”

One species, bull trout, became extinct in the 1970s, and four others—pink and chum salmon, southern steelhead and coho salmon—are in grave danger.

“The fish don’t lie,” Moyle stated. “The story they tell is that California’s environment is unraveling. Their demise is symptomatic of a much larger water crisis that, unless addressed, will severely impact every Californian.”

The fish crisis is plenty big enough, however. Sport fishing in California is a $2 billion business, and a crucial income source in rural counties.

The report lists numerous causes for the fish’s decline, including dams; agricultural and grazing practices; development; mining; railroads; logging; some recreational uses; illegal harvesting of native fish; reliance on fish hatcheries; and invasive species, such as the northern pike.

Native salmon, the mainstay of California’s fishing industry for decades, may not see the next century.

Courtesy Of california trout

In addition, the report states global warming will accelerate the decline of many of the fish, as salmonids are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature. Rapidly changing ocean conditions also contribute to the stressors on the fish.

The report argues for increased funding for the Department of Fish and Game and for the DFG to partner with local communities to protect regional fish populations and their habitats.

In a November 21 Op-Ed piece in The Sacramento Bee, Moyle notes that some native species—he cites the Goose Lake redband trout—are thriving because of watershed-restoration projects. New projects on Clear Creek and Battle Creek promise to increase habitat for the four runs of chinook salmon, and a court has ordered restoration of the chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River.

“Providing a future for our iconic native fishes and their waters … requires a fundamental shift in the way our society treats its streams and natural lakes,” Moyle writes.

To read the “SOS” report online, go to

Local sport fishers should know that the report’s inclusion of fish hatcheries as a cause of the decline is echoed by a new DFG agreement to curtail stocking in many lakes and streams.

In 2006, two conservation groups, Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the DFG, charging that stocking streams and lakes with hatchery-reared fish—a DFG practice for a century—was having deleterious impacts on native fish species and several species of frogs.

In May 2007, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled that fish stocking has “significant environmental impacts” on “aquatic ecosystems” and “in particular, on native species of fish, amphibians and insects, some of which are threatened or endangered.”

The court ordered the DFG to prepare an environmental analysis by the end of 2008, but the DFG came back to court seeking an extension until January 2010. In exchange, the DFG last week agreed to the interim stocking plan.

The agreement will not stop all fish stocking, but it will be limited mostly to reservoirs and lakes that are not connected to a river or stream known to contain endangered native species. Stocking will be curtailed in waters where any of 25 native fish and amphibian species considered sensitive to fish stocking are known to occur.

For lists of sites where stocking will and will not be done, go to DFG spokeswoman Jordan Traverso advises, however, that the lists are subject to change.