David Bernhardt’s Interior nomination threatens salmon

When you experience the delight of California’s amazing king salmon, all other cares disappear. Maybe you caught one of these three-foot-long fish on a rod and reel, or maybe you took your first bite of a juicy grilled filet. Maybe you pulled that first highly valuable fish of the season over the side of your boat.

We, as California salmon lovers, live for those moments. But the truth is that each of those moments is under significant threat right now, and salmon lovers of all stripes should care deeply.

For California’s salmon fishermen, the downstream effects of political decisions in Washington are too obvious to ignore. It’s not merely a question of profit for us. We are the stewards of the public fisheries resources who rely on their long-term health for our existence. The viability of our future can be challenged by who is in power in Washington, no matter who they are.

The resignation of scandal-plagued Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke last year may have seemed like a positive change for a major federal agency. However, his successor could do even more damage. David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other anti-environmental clients, has now been nominated for the post.

Bernhardt isn’t exactly a household name, but fishermen know him well. His rise to power has been marked by both an innate ability to methodically deconstruct policies that are essential to protecting our environment and a history of backroom deals and influence peddling. We know him as the chief architect of policies that have constrained commercial and recreational fishing in coastal communities by waging war on the productivity of salmon watersheds. And we know him from his work representing greedy corporations that want water reallocated to Big Ag interests.


Prior to joining the Trump Administration, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist at a high-powered firm with a stable of anti-environment clients. Many of his signature clients are based right here in California.

Bernhardt spent years representing the Westlands Water District when it unsuccessfully sued Interior over the Endangered Species Act. Once at Interior, he developed a new plan for managing federal and state water supplies in California. Officials from Interior and the state haven’t revealed the status of these negotiations, but Bernhardt and his colleagues have made it clear they intend to overhaul existing agreements and provide more water to agricultural interests by stealing water from salmon.

Noah Oppenheim
Noah Oppenheim

Mr. Bernhardt’s client list is indicative of the type of policies he has built his career around. But now, instead of lobbying for these clients, he would have the power of an entire federal agency to wield on their behalf. By the latest tally, Bernhardt has more than three dozen potential conflicts of interest with former lobbying clients.

The ascent of a person so compromised to the role of Interior Secretary is an insult to the very notion of integrity and stewardship. With Bernhardt wielding the power of Interior Secretary, California salmon fishermen may not be able to withstand the damage.

We’d prefer to remain around long enough to clean up his mess. We, the people, deserve better.

Noah Oppenheim is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, working to support West Coast fishing communities and the marine resources on which they depend.
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