Watered down

Coalition says it knows real reason for massive salmon collapse

Dan Bacher is a local activist and an editor of The Fish Sniffer, “The No. 1 newspaper in the world dedicated entirely to fishermen.”

Salmon fishing is closed in ocean waters off California’s shore for the first time in state history, regulators are poised to extend the ban to Sacramento-area rivers and the region’s fishing industry—which includes everything from commercial fishing fleets to mom-and-pop bait shops—is scrambling to deal with the loss.

While state and federal regulators openly suspect poor ocean conditions as causing the dramatic and “mysterious” drop-off in the salmon population in California and Oregon waters, a coalition of recreational and commercial fishermen, Indian tribes, environmental groups and some prominent scientists don’t see the collapse as a mystery at all. And they point to a different culprit: other state and federal regulators.

Everyone agrees Sacramento River chinook salmon suffer from an array of problems, but the coalition claims the most significant are the massive export of water from the California Delta by the state and federal pumps and declining water quality. State and federal government water managers pumped an all-time record high of 6.4 million acre-feet of water from the Delta in 2005.

“What’s happened is no surprise given the massive water diversions from the Sacramento-San Francisco Bay Delta and the failure to address toxic discharges into this estuary, an ecosystem critical to the survival of the salmon run that drives our West Coast fishery,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

The unprecedented collapse of Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon—which return from the ocean to spawn—caused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in California on April 10. Consumers have already seen the price of salmon rise sharply, and it will only get worse. But consumers have food choices. The closure spells economic doom for those who make their living off salmon, including fishermen, river guides and merchants who sell fishing tackle and gear.

“There will be a huge impact on the people who fish for a living, those who eat wild-caught king salmon, those who enjoy recreational fishing and the businesses and coastal communities dependent on these fisheries,” said Don Hansen, chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal regulatory body that closed the season at its meeting in Seattle earlier this month.

The California Department of Fish and Game assesses the potential loss from the closure of the salmon season to be $255 million and 2,263 California jobs, including many dependent on recreational salmon fishing in the Sacramento Valley.

The Sacramento River fall chinook population, until recently the most robust West Coast salmon run, is the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries. As recently as 2002, 775,000 adults returned to spawn, the vast majority passing through downtown Sacramento on their way to the spawning grounds. Even with the fishing closures, the return of Sacramento River salmon this fall is projected to be an all-time low of only 54,000 fish.

The California Fish and Game Commission’s April 15 vote to close state ocean waters was unanimous. According to John McCammon, the commission’s then acting director, the action conformed to the PFMC decision. The commission is expected to impose a similar ban for Central Valley rivers on May 9.

As the ocean closure was being enacted, Don McIsaac, PFMC executive director, said, “The reason for the sudden decline of Sacramento River fish is a mystery at this time.” Ocean conditions were the suspected cause, however.

When Schwarzenegger declared California’s state of emergency, he removed mystery from the equation, unequivocally blaming “poor ocean conditions and other environmental factors” for the fishery disaster.

But Peter B. Moyle, professor of fish biology at UC Davis, says blaming ocean conditions for salmon declines is like blaming the iceberg for sinking the Titanic. “Ocean conditions may be the potential icebergs for salmon populations, but the ship is being steered by us humans,” said Moyle. “Salmon populations can be managed to avoid an irreversible crash, but continuing on our present course could result in loss of a valuable and iconic fishery.”

A delegation of seven commercial salmon fishermen from California, Oregon and Washington in early April traveled to Washington, D.C., asking for congressional hearings to look into the root causes of the salmon crisis.

More recently, on April 16, federal Judge Oliver Wanger tossed out a federal plan to allow more pumping from the Delta because it would jeopardize protected runs of Sacramento River salmon.

“Salmon and other Delta fisheries have collapsed,” says Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, “because the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations have put political science on the throne and real science on the scaffold.”