Salmon & Water Wars

by Alastair Bland, June 2, 2011

Coho & Chinook smolts, courtesy of Yakama Nation Fisheries

San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts, which filed a lawsuit this month to stop California's commercial salmon fishing season just five days after it began, say they're worried that fishing will harm the state's salmon populations, which have been struggling for several years. But the main motive behind the suit filed on May 5 against the federal government is not about the health of salmon runs; it's about water.

The suit contends that if numbers of Chinook, or king, salmon abruptly drop, federal regulators could react by curtailing farmers’ access to the Sacramento River’s water, which the fish require for spawning. Already, the plaintiffs say, the spring run of Chinook salmon is listed as threatened.

“And if the run gets listed (as endangered), then we’ll have to give up more water,” said Allen Short, coordinator of the San Joaquin River Group Authority, the alliance of twenty-two water management agencies pressing the lawsuit.

Some fishermen suspect a scheme is underway to eliminate the demands and needs of the fishing industry.

“We’re a thorn in their side, and as long as we’re around, the water guys will want us gone,” said Berkeley commercial fisherman Mike Hudson.

“If they really are concerned about protecting fish, (the plaintiffs) should look at the state and federal pumps in the Delta and those that receive water from them,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Victor Gonella also wonders if California’s agriculture industry is pushing a campaign to rid the state of fishermen.

“Because if the commercial salmon fishery collapses, then it opens more latitude for them to pump more water,” said Gonella, the president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Chinook salmon numbers began to plummet about five years ago after Delta water pumping rates between 2003 and 2006 hit all-time record highs. After a record spawning run in 2002 of almost 800,000 fish, the fall run of Chinook salmon crashed and in 2009 bottomed out at 39,000, the lowest return ever recorded.

National Marine Fisheries Service research biologist Michael O’Farrell says overfishing of salmon did not cause the crash and has rarely, if ever, been a problem. Rather, experts generally blame the collapse of the Chinook salmon on the poor condition of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where pollution, nonnative predators, and — especially — water diversions via two large pumps in the southern Delta have created a hostile environment for many fishes.

Now, salmon numbers seem to be on the rebound. Last fall’s return of spawning adults to the Sacramento River was up four fold from 2009’s low, and current abundance in ocean waters is believed to be at nearly a million salmon. Hudson says environmental regulations that began restricting water pumping from the Delta in 2009 to protect endangered fishes, high rainfall, and improved salmon hatchery programs are to thank for the return of the salmon.

Short, however, says the salmon are back due in part to fishing closures in 2008 and 2009 and a partial closure last year.

“After banning fishing, we saw a return in the salmon population like we haven’t seen in years,” he said. Short wants to see fishing held off for at least another season — a move that Hudson says would be not only unnecessary but economically devastating.

“Everybody in the (salmon fishing) fleet is flat broke now after three years of no fishing,” he said, adding that many have borrowed money to maintain or repair their boats and are now banking on a profitable salmon season. “If this season got shut down now, it would be a hit that a lot of guys couldn’t recover from.”

While wild salmon remain an element of the Sacramento River’s ecosystem, those of the San Joaquin went extinct six decades ago. According to Dr. Peter Moyle, a UC Davis fishery biologist the San Joaquin once boasted half a million spawning fish per year, according to Moyle, who says the river was a “phenomenally productive” system for its relatively small size. In the 1940s, the construction of the Friant Dam completely eradicated the fish. The last large run occurred in 1948, when 50,000 salmon spawned in the remaining accessible habitat downstream of the dam. Fishermen begged the Bureau of Reclamation to let enough water through the dam to allow the fish to spawn and maintain a population. But the dam’s operators ignored the pleas. They cut off the outflow, filled the valley behind the dam with water, and began diverting ninety-five percent of the river’s water into fields and orchards to the south and west. The last generation of native San Joaquin River salmon perished.

Today, the San Joaquin River system’s salmon populations consist of only several hundred to several thousand spawning fish each year that return each year to the river’s three lower tributaries — the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne, and Merced rivers.

For six decades, the main branch of the San Joaquin has borne no salmon at all.

But that is scheduled to change. In the 1990s, legal skirmishes between conservationists and water users resulted in focused efforts to restore the San Joaquin’s lost salmon runs. A 2004 court settlement even determined that operation of the Friant Dam violates the state’s Fish and Game Code, in which Section 5937 states that “[t]he owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.”

Moyle says that fertilized eggs from Sacramento salmon will soon be planted in the San Joaquin with the hope of seeding a new population — but certain conditions will be required to assure that these salmon can spawn and their progeny live. To this end, the San Joaquin River Agreement, enacted in 1999, mandates that the region’s water districts maintain minimum river flow rates to facilitate the return of spawning fish, which Moyle says could some day number, at best, five to ten thousand.

Short says his group of water agencies is doing its best to bring back the salmon — but the commercial salmon season, which opened May 1, is not helping, he says.

“We’re required to increase spawning returns and increase the salmon population, but we can’t increase fish numbers if our salmon go out to sea and can’t get back again,” Short said.

Zeke Grader calls the contentions of the plaintiffs in the San Joaquin River Group Authority’s lawsuit “audacious.” He says that the water agencies now suing the government have been protected by senior water rights from recently imposed restrictions on Delta water pumping.

“There has been no cooperative effort on their part to restore the runs,” Grader said. “They’ve been brought along kicking and screaming. They haven’t sacrificed any water, and they caused the declines (in salmon numbers).”

Dick Pool, president of the Concord-based conservation group Water4Fish, is mystified by the lawsuit, which names the federal Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service as defendants. Like Grader, Pool observes that the water agencies now suing the government are well buffered from imminent harm from water pumping restrictions.

“It just looks like they’re suing out of spite,” he said.

But Short vouches for the logic behind the lawsuit. He noted in an email to the East Bay Express that the state and federal agencies “authorizing significant commercial salmon harvest this year . . . are the same agencies that caused a shutdown of the pumps in the delta to, in part, protect spring- and winter-run salmon.” He says that the affected pumps transport domestic water to twenty-five million Californians and that “shutting down the pumps” at certain times of the year to minimize fish mortality has had heavy economic impacts in farming communities.

Pool warns that closing fishing seasons won’t restore salmon runs. To do so, he says, more water must be allowed to flow down the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. If the flows are inadequate, then the Endangered Species Act will kick in, he says, affecting farmers and fishermen alike.

“The way I see it, if the salmon get listed, we’re all in deep trouble.”

This story first appeared in the East Bay Express.

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