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Salmon fishing season opens after years of restrictions; tensions remain

By Gina Lappe | 17 May 2011

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The Point Arena Pier lay empty the day before the first complete opening of the salmon season since its closure in 2008. (Photo: Gina Lappe)

This month, for the first time in two years, salmon fishing season is fully open in the Pacific Northwest. But for the salmon fisherman, who have been unable to make a living on their work for two seasons, it’s still too early to tell if the tide has truly turned.

No earthquake shook the coastline and no smoke rose over the mountains, but in April 2008 governors of California, Oregon and Washington came together to ask the White House for $170 million in disaster relief assistance.

The disaster relief funds went to salmon fishermen in the northwestern states, who had been told they could not fish for the duration of the 2008 season. In a single day thousands of fishermen, their crews, families and communities were left without employment, and no guarantee that the 2009 season would be any different.

Today, even as things seem to be looking up for coastal communities, tensions remain.  It all hinges on the high demand for fresh water: farmers need irrigation for crops, fishermen need healthy rivers for salmon to spawn and urban areas need tap water.

The large water pumps that move water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to locations all over California are a huge component of California economy. Fish don’t stand a chance against those massive pumps – physically or politically — but the disconnect between water flow rates and fishery health, along with the powerful presence of thirsty, large-scale agriculture, make regulating those pumps in favor of fish near impossible.

Today, the San Luis Reservoir, which stores much of the delta water, is holding more than 100 percent of its historic average, and the pumps are turned off. After large amounts of snow in the Sierra Mountains this winter, this looks like a good year for water in California — and possibly a good year for salmon and the fishing communities who depend on them. But in a state where irrigated agricultural fields have replaced deserts, this abundance of water is likely to be short lived.

Chinook Salmon feed on planktonic diatoms, copepods, kelps, seaweeds, jellyfish, and starfish (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

That’s not good news for salmon or other river-spawning fish. Salmon have a unique and awe-inspiring lifecycle. Born upriver, salmon then make their way downstream towards salt water, passing through farmland, sport fishing spots and areas with water pumps, which can make rivers run uphill. Then, after spending their adult lives foraging at sea, each salmon will return to the exact river where it was born to lay eggs of its own. A new dam that blocks a river can be the end of an entire run, or upstream migration, of salmon.

During their journeys, salmon may come into contact with upriver changes and with open ocean fluctuations like El Niño and Pacific Decadal Oscillations. With increasing environmental changes, from dams to climate change, it is hard to identify what piece of the puzzle is impacting salmon populations the most.

The fall runs of Central Valley Chinook salmon are the main event for California fisheries. Fall run salmon population counts determine the fishing season for that year.

These fish run in the rivers of the central valley, putting them in direct contact with the massive delta water pumps, and agricultural water needs. In 2008, just 40,900 to 91,400 of the fish returned to spawn—far fewer than the runs of 122,000 to 180,000 fish deemed necessary for the fish’s survival. This year the Pacific Fishery Management Council projected that ocean salmon populations are up to 730,000 adult Chinook, prompting the reopening of the recreational and commercial fishery.

While this number is still low by historical standards, Jim Hie, a conservationist on the council’s Salmon Advisory Subpanel, expressed the panel’s desire to keep the season open to help “fishing communities get back on their feet.” “Conservation starts with my community on the coast where people make their living fishing,” he said.

Chinook Salmon are native to the San Francisco Bay Area. (Photo: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr)

W.F “Zeke” Grader Jr., executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, made the water connection clear in his testimony to a state assembly committee in 2009.

“Salmon need water,” he said. “The foundation for rebuilding our salmon stocks in California is making sure there are adequate flows of good quality water so the fish can safely travel from where they were spawned … to the ocean … [and] back to their natal streams.”

In addition to having enough water to allow fish to swim upstream, Hie explained, “flow rates need to be high enough to control water temperatures during the time when the fish are returning to spawn.” If the water is too warm, the eggs will not survive.

Robert Kope, of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, also acknowledged that the health of salmon fisheries depend on upriver changes, saying that long-term fishery health “would require habitat improvement and changes in water management in the river and delta.”

While the council can only make open-ocean regulations, council members know that salmon must be safe in every part of their habitat – including the inland rivers where they spawn.

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