Kelly Zito, Chronicle Staff Writer,
December 4, 2010
That’s the decline in California’s fall salmon run since 2002, a contraction that led to a “federal disaster” declaration, closure of back-to-back salmon seasons in two states and a blight across a historic fishing culture.
“This is an absolute catastrophe for all of us – those who enjoy eating salmon, those who like to recreationally fish for salmon, for all the commercial entities that benefit from the salmon catch every year,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough.
Despite the plunge in salmon stocks, however, Speier worries that little progress has been made to reverse the damage. Today, Speier and fellow Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, hope to change that with a “salmon summit” in Half Moon Bay.
The meeting will bring together conservationists, commercial fishermen, fish buyers and other small-business owners affected by the loss of billions in salmon sales and an estimated 23,000 jobs over the last eight years. They will discuss the latest statistics on the size of the salmon run, the long-term economic reverberations and the efforts to improve the species’ prospects.
Though unlikely to solve the thorny problems driving the population to rock-bottom levels – from invasive species and pollution to large-scale water exports and poor coordination among regulatory agencies – those on the front lines say it’s time the public got a full accounting of the crisis.
‘No one is minding the store’
“This is a public resource that belongs to the American people, and it’s being taken away,” said Half Moon Bay salmon fisherman Pietro Parravano, captain of the Anne B. “This shows you that no one is minding the store. This collapse has created a cloud over all our coastal communities.”
The prized fish’s deterioration has also framed much of the debate over the plight of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the linchpin of the Golden State’s water system and a place where the interests of farmers, cities, environmentalists and anglers collide.
Though most stakeholders avoid the “farms vs. fish” shorthand, it is clear that today’s meeting will place much of the blame for the salmon demise on California’s multibillion-dollar agriculture sector. Farmers are essentially charged with draining the delta with the blessing of the state and federal agencies that operate the systems delivering water to parts of the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of juvenile salmon on their way from the Sacramento River to the sea are chewed up each year by the powerful delta pumps.
Eight years ago, about 1.5 million adult salmon were recorded in the fall run; in 2009 that number tumbled to below 39,000, according to Dick Pool, a fishing equipment maker and founder of advocacy group Water 4 Fish.
As the downturn picked up speed, federal orders curbed water exports from the delta.
No significant rebound
But the fish have not rebounded significantly – pointing to other culprits such as overfishing, farming groups say. Rather than cutting flows to crops, the answers lie in establishing more salmon farms or building new dams for extra water storage, said Paul Wenger, a third-generation Modesto farmer and president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“I feel for the salmon fishermen – it’s an emotional issue,” Wenger said. “But maybe the approach should be like harvesting wheat. You take some seeds and replant for next year.”
Wenger also points out that California farmers over the last four decades have grown extraordinarily efficient: production has nearly doubled while water use remained level.
But Speier wonders exactly how much of that water is being used by huge corporate farms to irrigate low-value, federally subsidized crops, some of which end up overseas.
“Of course we have to protect the family farmer,” Speier said. “But this is large agribusiness. If the choice is between water for grain going to China versus water for salmon that benefit all of California, my decision is easy.”
Major changes sought
Whatever policy conclusions follow this or any other meeting about the fate of California salmon, Pool said actions must be radical and rapid.
“People need to know we’re not going to save this species without major change,” Pool said. “If business continues as usual, (salmon are) going to go extinct very soon.”