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  • Randy Pench /

    About 400,000 Chinook salmon smolt were trucked and released into the Sacramento River in March.

  • John McManus

Viewpoints: Drought shadows the start of California’s salmon season

Published: Thursday, May. 1, 2014 - 12:00 am

Today, California’s commercial salmon season begins off our coast. From Santa Barbara to Fisherman’s Wharf and beyond, commercial fishermen will soon be delivering one of nature’s most healthy and delicious foods – California wild king salmon.

The king salmon caught off our coast are the best anywhere in the world, and markets all over the U.S. and beyond will bid for these fish. Here in California, thousands of workers will benefit from this fishery. In addition to boosting the economy, the health of our salmon runs also tells us about the health of Central Valley rivers where salmon spawn and rear.

The Sacramento and other Central Valley rivers, coupled with the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, is the most important salmon producing system south of the Columbia River. The rivers that feed the Bay-Delta drain 40 percent of the state and provide the backbone for California’s salmon fishery.

This means that California’s drought will have major impacts on salmon – and salmon fishermen. Last fall, declining river levels left some salmon eggs high and dry, killing them. This and other drought-related problems will reduce the salmon run in 2016.

In addition, massive water diversion pumps in the Bay-Delta turn it into a death trap for salmon and this year may be among the worst ever. In response to demands from San Joaquin agricultural interests for more water, salmon protections in the Delta and the San Joaquin River have been greatly weakened. This has made dry year conditions for salmon even worse.

When adult salmon return to spawn this summer and fall, low reservoirs are likely to release water hot enough to kill incubating salmon eggs, cutting into fish we’d otherwise be able to catch in 2017.

In spite of all of these problems, California should have a decent salmon season this year because the adult fish we’ll catch in the ocean this year were born and reared during 2011, which was a wet year. Although fishing should be decent, population levels are still far below the level required by state and federal law and what we could have if water was managed more wisely in California.

Against this backdrop, there are now proposals in Congress to permanently weaken the laws protecting salmon and to block federal fish agencies from protecting salmon when river levels dangerously drop. The Golden Gate Salmon Association suggests this should be stopped.

The concerns of the fishing community are well founded. In 2008 and 2009, California’s salmon fishery was shut down entirely – in large part because of record high levels of Delta water exports. We must avoid repeating those mistakes.

State and federal agencies and elected officials must remember that salmon and our rivers suffer badly during droughts. Two years after droughts, fishing jobs and communities always suffer when adult salmon are missing. Although the pain in our fishing communities is delayed, it’s real, and we shouldn’t respond to today’s drought in ways that makes things far worse for salmon and salmon communities down the line.

Some farmers and cities will suffer real water shortages this year because of drought. But passing emergency legislation aimed at tearing down protections for salmon is not our best response.

Sacrificing salmon and the Bay-Delta ecosystem wouldn’t end those water shortages, but it would result in disastrous impacts on fishing families and communities. Real drought solutions involve developing more drought-proof supplies through measures such as water recycling, and maybe taking a long, hard look at the gross overpromising of water that state and federal officials have done.

Millions of Californians love to see local salmon in our markets and on our dinner plates starting this time of year. Hundreds of thousands love to fish recreationally for salmon. Both are part of a unique California heritage of sustainable food, river ecosystems, communities and jobs. Protecting that heritage is never more important than during dry years.

John McManus is executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a coalition of fishermen, wholesalers and retailers.

Read more articles by John McManus

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