Hope for Future Fisheries During Tough Times

The CopCo 2 dam being dismantled on the Klamath River, freeing up the river for the first time in over 100 years. Photo courtesy of Shane Anderson, Swiftwater Films, © 2023.

These last few years have been terribly hard for West Coast commercial fisheries, without a doubt.

Two of the once most profitable West Coast fisheries—salmon and Dungeness crab—are both now severely restricted. The 2023 salmon season was totally closed in California and much of Oregon, and another record-breaking salmon season closure is looming for at least California in 2024. These are back-to-back fisheries disasters.

Yet in the midst of all these assaults on our fisheries, there is still cause for some optimism.  Many of these threats to fisheries are being met head-on by our industry with some successes, which means hope for improved fisheries in upcoming years. This article highlights those efforts and successes.

Salmon Habitat Restoration

Klamath Dam Removals Scheduled for 2024: Restoring the Klamath River’s severely damaged salmon runs, once the third largest salmon runs in the continental U.S., has been a major PCFFA goal since the first sets of “weak stock management,” Klamath-driven, broad-scale salmon season closures began in the early 1980s.

After many years of effort, started and led by the PCFFA/IFR, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave final permission in November 2022 for the transfer of title to these dams to a special corporation—the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, or KRRC (www.klamathrenewal.org)—whose only job is to remove them.

The dam removal process formally began in March 2023 and the first of the four dams to be removed (CopCo 2, the smallest) already has come down, and the river in that section of the Klamath now has been restored.

Full removal of all three remaining dams is to be completed by the end of 2024, followed by at least five more years of river restoration. I am the PCFFA/IFR-designated director seated on the Board of Directors of the KRRC, which is supervising the dam removal and salmon habitat restoration process over the next seven years.

It is expected that this Klamath dam removal effort will ultimately more than double the abundance of Klamath River fall Chinook salmon in the ocean once the natural runs re-establish themselves.

This is the largest dam removal project as well as the largest salmon habitat restoration project in human history to date. And it’s happening right now.

Potter Valley Project Cape Horn and Scott Dam Removals: The Potter Valley Project (PVP) consists of two 100-year-old dams on the Eel River, and a mile-long tunnel that diverts Eel River water to run a tiny hydropower plant on the East Branch of the Russian River. There the Eel River water outflow winds up in an entirely different hydrological basin.

Historically, the PVP has been disastrous for what were once highly productive Eel River-origin Chinook salmon fisheries. Chinook salmon runs in the Eel River historically averaged about 450,000 adults annually, with sometimes as many as 800,000 Chinook returning. Now there are less than 3,000 Chinook in the Eel River as mere remnants of what were once the fourth-largest salmon runs in the continental U.S., supporting major ocean fisheries.

The remaining Eel River Chinook are now Endangered Species Act-listed as part of the “California Coastal Chinook ESU (Evolutionarily Significant Unit).”

The primary reason for any remaining disputes over the removal of the Potter Valley Project dams is ongoing efforts by Russian River water users to continue to confiscate Eel River water at the expense of Eel River fisheries, as they have done for more than 100 years.

 Russian River farms never paid for that water, but it was never without a cost. Eel River Chinook and those who rely on them have paid—and continue to pay—a very steep price, including at least $80 million a year in lost coastal fisheries economic benefits and the loss of the equivalent of some 1,521 family-wage jobs.

All northern California ocean salmon fisheries are now severely constrained by the extremely weak stocks of ESA-listed California Coastal Chinook from the Eel River.

 PCFFA strongly opposed the 50-year relicensing of these dams back in the early 1980s, citing the massive damage the project already had done to important Eel River salmon runs—but was overruled by project proponents.

Now PCFFA has a second chance to help restore these fisheries and redress an historic injustice. Pacific Gas & Electric is preparing to file a License Surrender Application and “Decommissioning Plan,” working toward final two-dam removal in 2028.

Lower Snake River Dam Removals (Washington, Oregon, Idaho): After nearly 20 years of mostly successful litigation against the failings of the federal government’s Columbia River Hydropower System and its massive negative impacts on what were once the largest salmon runs in the world, PCFFA, IFR and our co-plaintiffs (including the state of Oregon) have recently concluded litigation settlement negotiations—facilitated by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) through the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality—with multiple federal agencies.

 The settlement agreement (the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative (CBRI), announced by the White House on Dec. 14, 2023) finally moves the region to be in a position within 10 years to ultimately remove the four lower Snake River dams, which block the largest tributary to the Columbia River and have led to the near extinction of several biologically critical runs of salmon.

Salmon losses in the Columbia Basin over the decades since the dams were built have also resulted in massive economic losses to salmon ocean commercial fisheries all the way south to central California and north to Southeast Alaska.

One of the things already to come out of those negotiations is a Presidential Policy Instruction issued Sept. 27, 2023, “Memorandum on Restoring Healthy and Abundant Salmon, Steelhead, and Other Native Fish Populations in the Columbia River Basin,” instructing all federal agencies to make recovery of salmon in the Columbia a high priority and to come up with a recovery plan for the damaged Columbia Basin salmon runs within 220 days of its issuance.

NOAA itself also issued a definitive scientific report on Sept. 30, 2022, “Rebuilding Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead,” concluding as a matter of science that Snake River dam removals would be the only effective way to help those ESA-listed Snake River populations recover.

IFR also funded PCFFA’s participation in the 2017-19 successful effort to craft a comprehensive, 100-year salmon restoration plan for the entire Columbia River Basin, which the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana are now working to implement with fishing industry input.

Water Reforms to Adopt More Fish-Friendly CVP Water Temperature Standards: A major reason for the collapse of California Central Valley Project (CVP) salmon runs in 2023 (and likely also in 2024) was that under the old 2019 Salmon Biological Opinion (BiOp) the Bureau of Reclamation was ordered by then-Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt (a former Westlands Water District lawyer and lobbyist) to “maximize water deliveries” to his former clients at the expense of salmon and against the advice of federal salmon biologists.

 Under that (frankly, illegal) 2019 “Salmon Plan,” from 2020 through 2022 just too much water was taken from the Sacramento River during key spawning and rearing times (especially during a record drought) to maintain survival-level cold water temperatures.

What little water was left for salmon after “maximizing” irrigation deliveries was simply too hot. Record levels of in-river salmon egg and smolt mortalities were the direct result.

 In PCFFA, et al. vs. Raimondo (U.S. Dist. Ct. Eastern Dist. Cal., Case No.  1:20-cv-00431), we challenged the previous administration’s 2019 Salmon BiOp mandate to “maximize irrigation” at the expense of salmon, with some success.

As a result of our lawsuit, the current administration has withdrawn support for that illegal 2019 plan in court, and is actively working to rewrite a much better and science-based new Salmon Plan BiOp to be released in 2024. See also the PCFFA article, “Salmon In Hot Water—Again!” (Fishermen’s News, December 2022).

PCFFA/IFR are still challenging the current warm water standards as set too high to protect salmon eggs and outgoing smolts, and will continue to press that point in every available forum.

Setting a Precedent of Requiring Minimum Instream Flows for Salmon: The public interest environmental legal firm Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) was hired by IFR in early 2023 to represent both PCFFA and IFR, teaming up with the Karuk Tribe of California, in a separate “Petition for Rulemaking” to California’s State Water Resources Control Board. The groups are advocating for permanent minimum instream flows to protect salmon in the Scott and Shasta tributaries to the Klamath River, which are the most productive Klamath Basin tributaries for salmon production outside of the Trinity River.

The petition was filed in May 2023 and then granted and scheduled for rule-making by the board, an ongoing process.

Once adopted, this would be a first-of-its-kind—California permanent minimum instream flow requirements that will set a major (and much overdue) statewide precedent for protecting key salmon runs. The petition (some 400 plus pages) is available on the ELF website at https://www.envirolaw.org.

 In a good beginning, temporary regulations that continue previous emergency minimum instream flows for the Scott and Shasta Rivers under still-in-effect drought declaration rules were adopted by the Water Board on Dec.19, 2023 as an interim protection measure.

Litigation Over 6PPD that Kills Salmon: This highly toxic chemical has been used since the 1950s in rubber automobile tires (see the Oct. 2023 Fishermen’s News PCFFA article, “Getting the 6PPD Out”). This suit was filed in U.S. District Court, Northern California, on Nov. 8, 2023.

This action is an extension of more than 20 years of PCFFA/IFR litigation to get chemical poisons out of salmon-bearing streams. 6PPD-quinone, which is a decomposition product of 6PPD, is the second most toxic chemical in urban wastewater to aquatic organisms (particularly to Coho salmon).

Getting this toxic fish poison out of our urban waters will help prevent major future salmon mortalities.

Cleaning Up California Central Valley Nitrate Pollution: For many years PCFFA/IFR has been in an alliance with multiple environmental justice groups in the California Central Valley, where numerous local water wells are highly polluted with nitrate fertilizers used in excess in Central Valley agriculture.

That alliance has been pressing the Central Valley Water Quality Control Commission and the State Water Quality Control Commission to regulate these pollutants through several largely successful lawsuits. Yet under pressure from Big Agriculture, these California water agencies still refuse to regulate nitrate fertilizers as required by statute and prior court order.

 On Oct. 27, 2023, after years of inaction, this alliance (including PCFFA and IFR) finally filed a Petition for a Writ of Mandamus action against the California Central Valley Water Quality Control Board for its repeated failure to regulate and clean up massive nitrate pollution problems from agricultural operations in the California Central Valley. The petition targeted the State Water Quality Control Board as well.

 These fertilizer-based nitrate pollutants also kill juvenile salmon swimming through the California Central Valley water system, thus reducing our ocean commercial salmon fishing harvests and harvest opportunities.

This suit is an extension of more than 10 years of existing litigation. The verified Writ of Mandate is also available at https://www.envirolaw.org.

Maintaining Access to Sustainable Fisheries

Reducing Impacts of Offshore Wind Projects on Fisheries: Faced with federal climate change response mandates to develop huge amounts of offshore wind (OSW), our fisheries are now faced with potentially devastating consequences if those wind farms are not developed in ways that minimize negative impacts on fisheries.

To date, very little effort has been made by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and state energy agencies to identify potential fisheries impacts and to mitigate or avoid them.

We have written in more detail about some of the serious economic problems presented by OSW development in the August 2022 Fishermen’s News article, “Offshore Wind Energy: Benefit or Boondoggle?” See also the November 2023, Fishermen’s News article, “Paying for Offshore Wind Energy Fishery Impacts.”

PCFFA and IFR also will provide staff support for PCFFA member associations’ representatives on the Offshore Wind and Fisheries Working Group recently formed by the California Coastal Commission pursuant to SB 286. The bill requires offshore wind energy companies to identify potential impacts on our fisheries and to mitigate, avoid or compensate affected fisheries participants for those impacts that cannot be avoided.

PCFFA was a staunch supporter of SB 286 and played a big role in its passage.

Reducing Fisheries Impacts from Offshore Aquaculture: IFR is also closely monitoring the process of developing offshore aquaculture farms, particularly in Southern California, which may also present numerous problems for future access to local ocean wild fisheries. There too, PCFFA/IFR strongly advocate for mitigation and avoidance measures that prevent potential conflicts.

This development proposal is proceeding much slower than for OSW, but is also a high PCFFA/IFR priority. PCFFA/IFR also have sued to challenge the legality of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Nationwide Permit No. 57, which requires the designation and eventual development of vast portions of the U.S. continental shelf for industrial-scale aquaculture (Don’t Cage Our Oceans, et al. vs. US Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. District Court of Washington (Seattle), Case No. 2:22-cv-01627).

The potential impacts of largely unregulated open-ocean aquaculture operations on our Southern California fisheries could be disastrous. But we are making strong efforts to see that those impacts are minimized, mitigated and where they cannot be avoided, that affected fishing stakeholders are compensated for their losses.

In summary, there is hope for improved fisheries in the future, including resumed salmon seasons, based on today’s efforts by our fishing industry to protect what we have and restore what we have lost.

Nothing is ever easy in our industry—and hope must always be teamed up with determination and diligence. But we are all working hard to protect and create abundant future fisheries beyond the current “bottleneck years.” And that effort is beginning to bear fruit.   

Glen Spain, J.D., is the Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). He is also the PFMC-appointed Commercial Fisheries Representative to the PFMC’s Habitat Committee. He can be reached by email at fish1ifr@aol.com and by phone at the PCFFA/IFR Office at (541) 689-2000. PCFFA’s website is www.pcffa.org; IFR’s website is www.ifrfish.org.