Are California Salmon Here To Stay?

TU California Director Brian Johnson with a Chinook salmon caught off the San Francisco coast.

By Brian J. Johnson, TU California Director

There’s good news for those who like to eat and catch salmon, and for the families they support: California is currently experiencing the best salmon season in a decade. Biologists are predicting a return of as many as 800,000 fish to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The Klamath River is also having its best year in quite a while and with the recent rains, salmon are moving into the shorter coastal streams.

This is a dramatic change from recent years. Four years ago, for the first time since 1848, no one could serve local salmon because populations had crashed. Fishing was closed for two years, and opened for only 11 days in 2010.

What changed? There are many variables, but most experts point to two predominant factors: River flows and ocean conditions. State scientists have established a strong correlation between the number of salmon returning in a given year and river flows 2.5 years before – the time when those fish were emerging from eggs and making their way to the ocean. When flows are strong, so are future salmon runs.

As for ocean conditions, they’re cyclical. A healthy salmon population can weather ocean cycles (they’ve done so for millennia), but a weak salmon population is vulnerable.

In the years leading up to 2008, low rainfalls and high water diversions depleted river flows to dangerous levels, and poor ocean conditions delivered a one-two punch. In the years leading up to 2012, we had better rainfall and improved water management, and also better ocean conditions.

In 2008, local fishermen, restaurateurs, fish wholesalers, wineries, and conservationists called for a renewed commitment to local salmon and our coastal heritage, declaring that we cannot let fishing closures become the “new normal.” (See A Recipe for Wild Salmon from the San Francisco Chronicle in July 2, 2008, which I co-wrote with Paul Johnson of the Monterey Fish Market.)

Now that Central Valley salmon runs are stronger, can we rest easy and assume that they’re here to stay? Not hardly. Although fish populations are up, they’re still low by historic standards. But the return of salmon in 2012 does prove that closed fisheries do not have to be the new normal. We can’t control ocean conditions, but one thing’s for certain: It’s critically important for salmon to have clean rivers with plenty of cold water and clear migratory pathways to spawning grounds.

Later this year, the State Water Board will release a proposal to maintain river flows on the San Joaquin River, which provides critical habitat for local salmon. A key question is what percent of river flow must be maintained for downstream uses, including fisheries. State and federal scientists have concluded that 60 percent is required to maintain healthy salmon habitat. By comparison, current rules have resulted in median flows of only about 33 percent. The rest goes to upstream water users. Everyone agrees that upstream communities need water. But so do the people who live downstream. Both upstream farms and downstream fisheries feed people, employ people, and put money into their local economies. As the Water Board prepares its proposal, people who depend on fisheries are hoping for something more equitable.

If we want more great salmon years in the future, we must have water.

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