The Salmon and Steelhead Crisis
The salmon runs of the Central Valley of California have collapsed. Two of the four separate runs are already listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The fall run, which was the largest and is not ESA listed, has collapsed the most severely. It dropped 97% from 1,490,468 adults in 2002 to 39,530 in 2009. This is the largest salmon collapse in U.S. history and without major changes in Delta and upriver water management, these fish are headed for extinction.
Pumping increased and salmon crashed
To avoid extinctions, the salmon fishing seasons were completely shut down in 2008 and 2009 and severely curtailed in 2010. The impact on salmon fishermen and salmon businesses has been devasting. Urgent action is needed for these fish if they are to be recovered.
The Cause of the Decline
Fishermen are not the cause of the decline but they are the ones who have suffered. The primary cause of the decline has been over pumping and exports of the fresh water from the San Francisco Bay Delta and mismanagement of the upriver water flows that feed water to the Delta. Most of the increased exports go to agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. Salmon and Steelhead smolts must migrate through the Delta to reach the ocean. When the pumping rates are high, smolts are pulled out of their normal migration path and into the Central Delta. Combined in-river and Delta losses can reach 92%. The Central Delta has little cover, little food and a large population of predators. The tiny fish cannot survive these hazards and perish.
When the state and federal pumps run at maximum, smolts are pulled out of the Sacramento River and perish in the Central Delta. Combined in-river and Delta losses can reach 92%.
Historically the Northern California Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds provided ideal conditions for salmon and steelhead. The populations were huge. The cold clear tributaries fed by the Sierra Nevada Mountain snowpack presented ideal spawning and migrating conditions for salmon and steelhead. The size of the Central Valley runs were second only to those of the Columbia River. Salmon fed the 1849 gold rush and much of the rest of California. The construction of dams on all of the major rivers destroyed much of the habitat but millions of salmon continued to complete their life cycle in the remaining watersheds. Most of these populations flourished until California began running out of water in the 1990s. Population growth and over expansion of agriculture put more water demands on the Delta than it could withstand and still remain a viable estuary. The ecosystem collapsed and thousands of aquatic species including salmon collapsed along with it.
The Impact of Closed Seasons
The economic and human impact of the salmon crash and the closed fishing seasons has been severe. Thousands of commercial fishermen, charter boat operators, guides, tackle manufacturers and employees of associated businesses are unemployed. Hundreds of coastal communities that depend on the salmon fishing businesses have also been hurt badly. Salmon fishing to some of these communities is the number one economic driver. An American Sportfishing Association (ASA) 2009 economic study of the season shutdowns put the job loss at 23,000 and the California economic impact at a negative $1.4 billion annually. There are now 500,000 salmon fishermen who are deprived of their favorite pastime. They do not understand how a public resource can be so badly abused.
The Current Situation
To recover the Central Valley salmon and steelhead, the Delta must be restored and the upriver lethal temperature and flow conditions must be corrected. In 2009, a new federal government biological opinion for the ESA listed runs reduced the pumping and corrected the upriver habitat conditions for those fish. It did very little for the other runs. If the other runs, including the fall run, are to be recovered, more changes are needed. ASA and a coalition of recreational and commercial salmon groups are working with the fishery agencies on the necessary changes. They are being supported by several environmental groups. Unfortunately, very few changes have been made and the destructive practices continue to prevail. Both the state and federal governments have vowed to fix the problems but so far very little progress has emerged. There are some long term salmon improvements on the drawing boards but with some of the runs nearing extinction, the salmon can’t wait.
The salmon industry has identified two short term projects that can make a big difference. These need your support. (1) Trucking the hatchery smolts around the Delta to avoid the current losses and (2) the closure of the Delta cross channel gates in the fall to allow returning adults to find their way back to the Mokelumne hatchery. In a controversial move, the Bureau and DWR rejected the gates project in 2010.
Our primary adversaries in these water wars are the agricultural water contractors of the San Joaquin Valley. They want control of more of the public’s water and they could care less about fish. They have filed 13 lawsuits trying to overturn the biological opinions. They have also introduced six bills in congress trying to do the same thing. They are spending millions in a PR campaign against the fish. Money and control are bigger issues than watering crops. When they get allocations of subsidized water, many of them are selling it instead of growing crops. By selling it they make up to ten times their cost. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) support the water contractors and oppose most salmon recovery projects. DWR is leading the lawsuits to overturn the biological opinions.
We need your letters and support at Water4Fish.org. When millions of California anglers demand change we will get it. Sign the petition and volunteer to write letters. We will use your proxy with the politicians and will keep you informed.