The reality is that salmon-dependent fishing families are the ultimate victims of widespread salmon declines, not their cause.
At the time of this writing in late January, prospects for 2023’s California, Oregon and Washington ocean commercial, recreational and Tribal salmon seasons are bleak.
Ocean salmon abundance projections are so low that broad closures may be a “weak stock management” necessity, simply to keep already severely diminished Coho and Chinook stocks from extinction.
The West Coast fishing industry is actually at the tail end of decades of salmon abundance declines. The onrushing threats of climate change bringing more droughts will only exacerbate these problems.
The two questions salmon-dependent communities need to ask now are “Why is this happening?” and also “What can we do as salmon-dependent communities to make sure salmon recover?”
All the various salmon user groups that have traditionally fought over annual seasonal allocations now face a common threat – multiple runs of salmon are slipping away, year by year, toward extinction.
Too Many Salmon Extinctions
Remarkably, widespread wild salmon declines throughout California and the Pacific Northwest went on for decades, in lockstep with river industrialization and dam building, with little official notice.
It wasn’t until the famous American Fisheries Society (AFS) salmon status survey was published in 1991 that salmon biologists finally connected all the dots (Nehlsen W., et al., 1991, “Pacific Salmon at the Crossroads: Stocks at Risk from California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington,” Fisheries, 16(2), 4-21). That’s when fishery management alarm bells began to ring in earnest.
That first-ever rigorous survey of all West Coast salmonid stocks found that of the 214 separate stocks still existing, 101 were at high risk of extinction, 58 at moderate risk of extinction, 54 of special concern, and one (California Central Valley winter-run Chinook) already by that time was listed as “threatened with extinction” under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and as “endangered” under California’s separate, similar statute.
No stocks were in good shape.
It also found from historical records that at least 106 to more than 200 other distinct stocks of salmonids already by that time had been extirpated from their native habitat. In other words, these once also important stocks are now extinct!
Unfortunately, the U.S. legal system offers very few ways to protect whole ecosystems from rampant destruction. Only species-by-species protections, and not of whole ecosystems, is available under the federal ESA.
So, in response to the alarming 1991 AFS Report, at least 18 distinct depressed salmon stocks have since been added to the federal protected species lists as either “endangered” or “threatened with extinction.” Still others are in candidate status or under consideration.
And in every case, later National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) status reviews and critical habitat designations identified multiple inland watershed impacts as primary drivers of these declines.
Fishing efforts most often have little direct impact, and what indirect (i.e., bycatch) impacts there may be is already strictly controlled by fisheries managers. But none of the many inland river impacts that degrade salmon habitat are ever similarly regulated.
No other commercially fished species is so utterly dependent on healthy and accessible inland watershed habitat as salmon are. They are, of course, both cold water dependent as well as “anadromous” fish.
Hatched from eggs laid far inland in cold, freshwater forest streams, in the ocean they migrate widely for several years (three years on average for Chinook) to feed and grow to maturity until their own internal biological clock commands them to migrate back up into the same stretches of river habitat from which they hatched.
But that all-important inland salmon spawning and rearing habitat is fast disappearing. Decades of poorly regulated logging and farming practices, too much sediment in the rivers, too many dams that block salmon, along with serious water pollution or outright de-watering of key rivers that salmon need to survive, kills most of these outgoing fish as juveniles, long before they ever hit the ocean.
Nor can hatcheries truly substitute for healthy rivers. Once hatchery-bred fish are released, they too will die if the river is too toxic, too hot, too full of pathogens or too loaded with sediment. And incoming hatchery-raised spawners can die trying to get back to the hatchery.
Decades of steady, overall habitat-loss driven declines of salmon nearly everywhere in California, Oregon and Washington coastal watersheds have severely strained the West Coast salmon fishing industry.
Past closures limited commercial harvest opportunities, forced many boat owners out of business and negatively affected the potential for future income for the remainder. These declines have cost our fishing industry literally billions of dollars in lost economic opportunities over the past several decades.
But because these losses were steadily incurred as downward trends over decades, in an industry where harvests fluctuate annually, they made no headlines.
Economic infrastructure losses to our industry over the past decades have also been severe. For instance, in California the number of commercial salmon fishing vessel permits issued by the state of California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) shrank from 7,744 (1980) to 1,263 (2009), a decline of more than 84%.
The number of California commercial “salmon stamp” fishing permits issued by the Department underwent a similar decline of 82% in that same time period, which meant sharp reductions in salmon stamp revenues devoted to salmon habitat and restoration efforts in the state.
By 2022, these disparities were even worse. Similar massive reductions in the numbers of commercial ocean salmon fishing permits also occurred in Oregon and Washington.
A Common Cause
PCFFA’s view is that commercial fishing communities, salmon conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and both sportfishing and Tribal salmon fishery stakeholders must combine efforts to effectively fight back against the onslaught of unregulated, industrial-scale damage still being done to inland salmon habitat. Many NGO and Tribal groups are doing so in a variety of ways.
Unfortunately, there are still some sportfishing groups that want to re-fight old allocation battles with commercial and Tribal fishing interests despite cases actually having been long settled (e.g., the Boldt Decision and U.S. v. Oregon).
Some of these groups are still pushing bills like Washington Senate Bill 5297, which would eliminate the lower Columbia River commercial gillnet fleet entirely—not for salmon conservation, mind you, but so their members could catch those fish instead. This amounts to fighting over the last few scraps as salmon continue to disappear.
PCFFA, working with its fisheries resource conservation sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), with some NGOs and Tribal allies, currently has the following on-going and active campaigns to right the wrongs done to the salmon over decades.
Removing deadbeat dams: Many aging dams were built without fish passage. PCFFA/IFR are working hard to remove several of these deadbeat dams to restore volitional salmon passage: the Scott and Cape Horn dams and bypass (Potter Valley Project) on the Eel River; Battle Creek dam in the upper California Sacramento Valley; Winchester Dam on Oregon’s North Umpqua River; the four lower Snake River Dams, and Enloe Dam in Washington State. Several other salmon-killing dams are under consideration to be added to this list.
PCFFA/IFR are also celebrating the victory of their 30-year campaign to remove the four Klamath River hydropower dams. On Nov. 17, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave final approval for their removal.
This will become the largest dam removal project in history, releasing more than 420 stream-miles of currently blocked salmon spawning and rearing habitat, eventually doubling salmon abundance numbers from the Klamath. PCFFA/IFR are among the groups first negotiating and then signing the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement that makes this possible.
Reforming fish-killing forestry practices: PCFFA/IFR has played a major role in efforts to improve federal forest logging rules, making them more salmon-friendly, as far back as President Clinton’s famous Pacific Northwest Timber Summit in 1993.
At that summit, PCFFA’s then-President Nat Bingham brought the plight of the Northwest’s salmon runs, which depend heavily on federal forestlands, squarely into the national forestry policy debate.
The subsequent federal PACFISH salmon habitat riparian protections adopted in 1994 have never been surpassed. They were the model for the later 50-year Washington “Forests and Fish” riparian protection plan intended to reverse the decline of salmon in that state.
Much more could be said about why logging reforms are important for salmon restoration. For more information on PCFFA’s campaign on these issues see the August 2016 Fishermen’s News article, “Forests and Fisheries: Why Logging Reforms Matter to Fishermen” (https://pcffa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/FN0816_PCFFA.pdf).
At present, and along similar lines, PCFFA is involved in creating a comprehensive new set of state-wide Oregon private timberland logging reforms (called the Private Forest Accords) which would greatly improve Oregon’s riparian salmon protections as well. Oregon’s riparian rules are currently the weakest of the three West Coast lower-48 states, but may soon be the strongest.
Developing “fish-friendly” agriculture: Many common agricultural practices can damage key riparian areas that salmon need to survive, but most of those problems, particularly excessive sediment draining into nearby rivers, can be controlled to the economic benefit of farmers.
The federal Clean Water Act provides many of these controls, through water quality protection standards called “Total Maximum Daily Loads” or TMDLs. PCFFA has participated in many of these rule changes and related litigation requiring those TMDLs.
More than 20 years of PCFFA/IFR litigation also greatly improved riparian protections by requiring the U.S. EPA to prohibit the agricultural use of multiple types of highly toxic, fish-killing pesticides on, over and around salmon-bearing streams.
Assuring more cold water flows for salmon: Especially in the Sacramento River/San Francisco Bay Delta water systems, there is just too little water left in the river after “maximining” irrigation diversions (and what water is left is just too hot) to adequately protect key salmon runs.
In PCFFA, et al. vs. Raimondo (N. Cal. Dist. Court, No. 1:20-cv-004310) filed in 2020, PCFFA challenged the current greatly reduced Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) water set-asides for salmon in the California Central Valley as “illegal, arbitrary and capricious, and not in accordance with the best available science.”
PCFFA’s case is still pending.
The current BOR water plan is a plan for the extinction of these Central Valley salmon runs and for commercial salmon fishing as we know it in California.
As a result of BOR’s instream water cutbacks that PCFFA/IFR are challenging, juvenile salmon survival rates in the SF Bay Delta (i.e., egg-to-fry survival) for winter-run Chinook plunged to only 11.46% in 2020, the third lowest level in the previous 16 years, and about one-half of the average survival rate over that same sixteen-year period.
Water allocations for winter-run Chinook were even worse in 2021, a major factor being the high river temperatures that were intentionally allowed under BOR’s control in order to “maximize” irrigation deliveries, but that resulted in an egg-to-fry survival rate in 2021 of only 2.6%.
These same BOR irrigation-biased water policies in 2022 led to a disastrous estimated 1.94% winter-run Chinook egg-to-smolt ratio. These horrific low survival numbers are almost certainly going to lead to major California ocean salmon season closures for several years to come.
“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night…”
In spite of major and heroic recent salmon habitat restoration efforts, the truth is that we are not winning the watershed restoration battle—but we are (maybe) buying more time to figure out how to do things better.
A big part of the problem is that many state and federal laws still allow— even encourage—the very same abusive land- and water-use practices that have all but driven salmon to extinction.
But the reality is that salmon-dependent fishing families are the ultimate victims of these widespread salmon declines, not their cause. Groups blindly trying to shut us down even further in the name of “saving salmon” are really just blaming the victims, not addressing the causes of these declines.
If the NGO environmentalists or sportfishing groups really want to bring salmon back they should stop trying to close down our fishery, which has the smallest impact of all, but which feeds people who then have every reason to protect the habitat from which their salmon comes.
We invite them instead to work with us to truly address the far more serious inland environmental impacts that are destroying the West Coast rivers that all salmon need to survive.
PCFFA is not shy about taking on these bad policies, in court if necessary, and with allies if possible, to get bad policies changed to be more salmon-friendly.
Indeed, we believe that our industry has no choice but to fight to restore the salmon-bearing watersheds that produce the salmon so many of our people need for our livelihoods. In fact, the fishing industry has been fighting that fight for decades, with a number of important victories.
We must keep fighting for salmon survival. Extinction, whether for salmon as a species, or for whole communities of coastal fishing families which depend on salmon for their livelihoods, is not an option.
Glen Spain is Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA, www.pcffa.org) and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources (www.ifrfish.org). He can be reached at PCFFA/IFR’s general email address at email@example.com. He is also the appointed Fishing Industry Representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) Habitat Committee.