Water For Fish

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.  It dropped 97% from 1,490,468 adults in 2002 to 39,530 in 2009.  It has collapsed even more with the drought.  These represent the largest California salmon collapse in U.S. history and without major changes in Delta and upriver water management; these fish are likely at risk of extinction.

Pumping increased and salmon crashed

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. More recently the drought has had a bigger impact than anything else.  Salmon and Steelhead smolts must migrate down the Sacramento River and through the Delta to reach the ocean.  When the river flows are low, the combined in-river and Delta losses reach 92%. The result is that the runs become unsustainable.

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 system than it could withstand and still remain a viable estuary.  The ecosystem collapsed and thousands of aquatic species including salmon collapsed along with it.

In 2009, a new federal government biological opinion was implemented for the ESA listed runs (the winter and spring-runs). The new protections reduced the pumping and tried to correct the upriver habitat conditions for those fish.  The restrictions did very little for the other runs which are the fall and late fall-runs.  The fall-run has been the mainstay for the salmon fishermen for decades.  If the other runs including the fall-run, are to be recovered, many more changes are needed.  The Golden Gate Salmon Association, Water4Fish and a coalition of recreational and commercial salmon groups are working with the fishery agencies attempting to get needed changes.  They are being supported by several environmental groups.  Unfortunately, so far 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.

In 2012, the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) identified 26 projects in a Salmon Plan that can make a big difference.  The plan can be seen at www.ggsalmon.org . Unfortunately, most of the projects remain stalled waiting for funding.  They need your support. 

The Drought and the Current Situation

The drought has severely impacted the wild salmon populations.  A successful fishing outlook for 2016 and 2017 and maybe even 2018 is very much in question.   Lethal egg temperatures in the rivers and tributaries destroyed 95% of the incubating eggs in 2014 and likely did the same in 2015 when mismanagement of the Shasta reservoir let the temperatures again go lethal.  In addition, millions of fall-run eggs were dewatered in the mainstem Sacramento River when the flows were dramatically dropped by the Bureau of Reclamation after the fish had spawned along the edges of the river.  There is plenty of blame to go around for these problems and the lack of responses.  We will pay the price in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Earlier this year, Water4Fish with technical help from the fish agencies and GGSA completed an analysis of the impact the drought will have on the salmon runs in 2015, 2016 and 2017.  With the three year salmon life cycle, these are the years which will show the missing adult returns from the drought of 2012, 2013 and 2014.  The results are very disturbing particularly for the wild spawning salmon.  In 2014, virtually all of the juveniles from the wild spawners perished.  The biggest problem was the lethal water temperatures in all the spawning rivers and tributaries.  When water temperatures reach 56 degrees, the salmon eggs begin to die and when it reaches 62 degrees 100% of them die.  The 2014 temperatures were lethal everywhere and it looks like the same thing happened again in 2015.  The Water4Fish calculations showed there could be as few as 20,000 wild fall-run adult salmon in the ocean in 2017.  In 2002 there were 1.4 million and in 2013 before the drought there were 400,000.  It takes around 400,000 adults in the ocean to have a viable salmon fishery.  There will be approximately 200,000 hatchery fish in the ocean in 2017 which will help, but it is the wild fish that we need if we are to sustain the runs.  In 2017, 95% of the adults will be hatchery fish and 5% of them will be wild.  We need the reverse of this. 

The Impact of Closed Seasons

The economic and human impact of the salmon crash and when the fishing seasons were closed in 2008 and 2009 was severe.  Thousands of commercial fishermen, charter boat operators, guides, tackle manufacturers and employees of associated businesses were unemployed.  Hundreds of coastal communities that depend on the salmon fishing businesses were also 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 500,000 salmon fishermen who fish when the runs are good.  They do not understand how a public resource can be so badly abused.


To recover the Central Valley salmon and steelhead, the Delta pumping systems must be modified to reduce the massive predation and entrainment problems.  The upriver lethal temperatures, flows and the other problems of the current upriver water delivery system must also be corrected.  GGSA and others have developed plans and have scoped projects that will do this.  What is missing is the funding and the political will to proceed.  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 some would be happy to take it away from the fish.  They have introduced multiple bills in Congress in the last four years trying to legislate removal of the salmon protections.  If they succeed in this, our salmon runs will be history.  They are spending millions in Washington DC in lobbying and public relations campaigns against the fish.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) generally support the water contractors and do not support most of the salmon recovery actions. 

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.