When I was ten, I taught myself how to fish in California’s redwood-lined Russian River, once a world-renowned wild steelhead rainbow trout sport fishery. Today, as a veteran trout and salmon sport angler I see how climate change threatens our wild trout and salmon populations and our outdoor traditions.
California is home to 31 kinds of salmon and trout. Of those, 23 are at risk of going extinct over the next century. Many factors affect the health of California fisheries, including water diversions and pollution, forestry practices, mining, and dams. Climate change, which leads to extreme drought, reduced snowpack, increased wild fires, ocean acidification, and warmer stream waters, compounds the threat to our cold-water fisheries.
‘Adaptation’ is not enough. We cannot adapt to no water. Climate change does not need an appropriative water right from the state to dry up our streams. It will just do it.
Scientists warn that the American West is transitioning toward perennial snow drought due to climate change. Over the last 30 years, snowpack has declined year after year. March may end up having been the wettest month this winter season, but thanks to a warmer-than-average winter, the snowpack remains below average. This weekend’s scheduled annual measurement will help determine whether the state will remain in drought until the next wet season.
The Russian River fishery decline is a particularly sad story of watershed mismanagement, which will only worsen with impacts of climate change. In 1968, the Russian River had a famous run of 50,000 wild steelhead. Now the wild population may be down to less than 5,000.
At the rate we’re going, greenhouse gases are projected to reduce coldwater fisheries by 62 percent nationally throughout the 21st century. We need to act now for the sake of our local and national cold-water species. If we take the necessary measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions, we could save fisheries between $380 million to $1.5 billion in damages over 80 years.
Fishing is an economic boon for our state. California issues just over a million sport fishing licenses every year. Recreational fishing supports more than 35,000 jobs and generates $4.6 billion annually for the state’s economy. Our fisheries are a tourism draw, and local businesses thrive during annual festivals that attract thousands of sportsmen and women to celebrate all that salmon and trout give us.
Fishing teaches us about our environment. The presence of mayflies, caddis and stoneflies, for example, means cold, clean water and well-fed, healthy trout. Warmer water, less dissolved oxygen, and a lack of a trout’s favorite snacks indicate an ecological problem.
Fishermen see up close what’s happening to our rivers. The conservation organization Trout Unlimited, which has more than 150,000 members worldwide, has an organized membership in California of roughly 10,000 avid trout fishermen like me, and we are trying to protect California’s fisheries.
We make small changes, like planting trees to stabilize banks and provide shade, fencing out cattle to prevent erosion or protecting streams from over-allocated water diversions, particularly in tributaries that are home to threatened or endangered species. But we also need to think big picture, and that means combating the causes – and not just the impacts – of climate change.
“Adaptation” is not enough. We cannot adapt to no water. Climate change does not need an appropriative water right from the state to dry up our streams. It’ll just do it.
Catching trout is exciting. When you hook a steelhead, it cartwheels and backflips and feels like an electric current running through your line, but the most rewarding part is the release. You can hold that great fish underwater for a moment to admire its ocean-bright steely sides and dark back, or its freshwater crimson and magenta hues, and admire its strength as it slowly swims away.
A California steelhead may migrate to Alaska or Russia and return multiple times to the river and tributary of its birth. We have put one of nature’s most incredible creatures at risk.
In the 1980s, Trout Unlimited’s Redwood Empire Chapter started a program called “Steelhead in the Classroom.” The students learn about the life cycle and habitat needs of our local fish and raise 30 steelhead from eggs in a classroom aquarium. The tiny steelhead are then released to a local tributary where the students may do restoration work, study water quality indicators and track their data through the years. The goal is that future students see improvements as streams are restored.
Today’s youth will one day face the task of recovering the habitats that are on the edge of collapse. I’m 64 years old. I have a lifetime of good fishing memories to look back on. I want to make sure that the next generations of Californians have that same opportunity.
Brian Hines lives in Santa Rosa and volunteers for Trout Unlimited, where he helped establish climate change as a critical focus area. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.