The California Salmon Plan

The “California Salmon Strategy for a Hotter, Drier Future” was released by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 30. It lists six goals and 71 actions intended to build healthier, stronger salmon populations throughout the state in the face of climate change-induced drought and heat.

    Some of those actions are ongoing or in the pipeline. Many are aspirational. The strategy’s planning horizon is the next three years of Newsom’s term as governor and so it amounts to a salmon “to do” list for his administration, involving multiple agencies.

It’s ambitious, but much needed. And in the face of likely climate change impacts, it’s also a forward-looking planning process that other states should emulate.

First of all, we thank Gov. Newsom for having a salmon recovery strategy at all, and for publishing it so that groups like us can hold the state and legislature accountable for getting it done. Ultimately, getting it done is what matters most for the salmon.

The governor has been taking huge political hits lately from out-of-work coastal salmon-dependent fishing families and businesses for past bad state water decisions that contributed to the complete closure of the California salmon season in 2023 (and likely similar closures in 2024).

To give the governor some credit, however, many of those bad water decisions were federal ones that California opposed. But whatever the source, these devastating closures just underscore the urgency of throwing state resources into major salmon restoration efforts as soon as possible.  As a response from the governor to this need, this salmon strategy is a welcome step.

The six goals in the strategy are: removing barriers and modernizing infrastructure; restoring and expanding habitat suited for spawning and rearing; protecting water flows and quality at times essential to salmon; modernizing salmon hatcheries; transforming technology and management systems for climate adaptability, and strengthening partnerships with local groups.

Let’s look a bit closer at what the salmon strategy promises for salmon restoration—and what it neglects, leaves out or glosses over.

Goal 1: Removing Barriers for Salmon Migration

“The infrastructure built generations ago in California continues to limit salmon migration, and some dams that remain on the landscape are well beyond their useful lives.” —Salmon Strategy

Gov. Newsom played an essential role in pushing the current Klamath Dam removal plan over the finish line. Once those four salmon-killing dams are down by the end of 2024, the largest salmon habitat restoration project ever undertaken can jump start a restored river.

This is one of the most important salmon recovery actions that the region ever could have taken, though it will take some years of more restoration and reintroduction work before we can reach the projected doubling of wild salmon populations the restored Klamath River will then be capable of supporting.

Removing salmon migration barriers where we can is a no-brainer, but there’s a long list of obsolete California dams that block salmon migrations and that demand attention. It’s gratifying to see some of those in the process of review in the governor’s salmon strategy, but the list could certainly be longer.  

Goal 2: Restoring and Expanding Salmon Habitat

“The pace of restoration lags the scale of threats to California’s biodiversity, especially salmon. Most California wetlands have been lost, and large rivers have been disconnected from floodplains. Wetlands and floodplains generate food (for salmon).” —Salmon Strategy

There are a number of small salmon habitat restoration projects listed in the strategy, but the thing that caught our attention most was a reference to the state’s “Salmon Habitat Restoration Priorities (SHaRP)” evaluation tool being used to try to “determine the most pressing habitat restoration actions needed to recover salmon populations in a focus area.”

Resources will always be limited, and such a tool is much needed to prioritize.

California’s “Cutting the Green Tape” program for expedited permit approvals for what are clearly useful habitat restoration projects is also to the state’s credit. While Gov. Newsom did not originate this idea, his expansion and support of that program and its use in implementing this strategy is laudable.

Some of the most important projects listed in this section relate to restoring winter floodwaters in natural floodplains in the upper Sacramento River (now mostly rice fields) at critical times in the year so they can be used by juvenile salmon.

Programs to use these fields for winter water storage have benefited both salmon and farmers, greatly reduced the need for field burning and helped restore nutrients to these fields. PCFFA has long supported these kinds of win-win cooperative solutions.

Wintertime flooding of open fields is also a great way to capture and percolate winter storm water back into natural aquifers, cutting down on flood risks and putting more water back into rivers later in the year.

Goal 3: Protecting Water Flows and Quality for Salmon

“Habitat restoration alone will not help salmon without sufficient cold stream flows, which entice returning adult salmon to their natal streams, provide critical habitat for eggs and juvenile salmon to grow and transport those juveniles to the Pacific Ocean. Without enough cold water, juvenile salmon cannot complete their lifecycle and recover and grow the population.” —Salmon Strategy

Ah, here’s the rub. California may be unique among the 50 states because it still has never adopted enforceable minimum instream flow requirements to protect fish and wildlife, especially salmon. Until recently there has never even been a way for water agencies to “just say no” to continuing over-appropriation of many key salmon rivers, nor to continued overdraft of the aquifers that feed those rivers.

Concepts like “cumulative impacts” and “sustainability” are very new to California’s out-of-date water laws.

As a result, many of California’s once great salmon-bearing rivers have quite simply been dried up, some for decades. A handful of once prolific salmon-bearing rivers (such as the San Joaquin) are being slowly recovered, but only as a result of decades of work by PCFFA and its allies to recover these key salmon runs.

Those efforts need to be fast-tracked and fully funded, but are barely mentioned in this strategy.

The other problem that the salmon strategy does not directly address is that way too much water already has been taken from Northern California rivers to feed the insatiable water appetite of big corporate agri-business farms in California’s Central Valley.

To say that California’s available river water supply is “over-appropriated” is a gross understatement.

A first of its kind peer-reviewed, scientific study of California’s current water system by the University of California, Davis in 2014 (cited below) concluded that California has already issued enough legal water rights to allow each year the withdrawing of about five times the total annual flow of all its rivers combined.

And the study also noted that the worst over-appropriations have been in the tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers—the home of most of California’s diminishing, but still remaining Central Valley salmon runs.

The salmon strategy just does not deal with the fact that many of California’s current water allocation policies are so out of balance they have become anti-salmon. This is why PCFFA has been fighting since it began in 1976 to keep more water in the California Central Valley, Klamath and other California and West Coast rivers to support abundant salmon runs.

Salmon swim in water, not promises.

On the plus side, California is now committing (in this strategy) to develop regulations in 2024 for the Scott and Shasta tributaries to the Klamath River —both important salmon streams—to provide for enforceable minimum instream flows for salmon, and then eventually move on to do the same for a handful of other key salmon streams (Mill, Deer and Antelope creeks, and then other river systems).

This is a long overdue step in the right direction! These valuable salmon runs must have more clean, cold water to survive.

But on the downside, Gov. Newsom is also still championing giant water diversion projects like the “Delta Conveyance” project (a planned huge tunnel under the San Francisco Delta to take most of the remaining water in the Sacramento River far south) and boondoggle water storage reservoirs (for example, the “Sites Reservoir Project”) that would take even more water out of the already over-appropriated Sacramento River that salmon need for bare survival.

All these new water projects, if they go forward, are going to be incredibly destructive to the very fish the governor’s salmon strategy says must be saved.

Goal 4:  Modernizing Salmon Hatcheries

“Now the California salmon and steelhead hatchery system operated and overseen by (the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) is one of the largest in the world and produces millions of spring- and fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead every year. These hatcheries are not ready for the future.” —Salmon Strategy

On this issue, we have a great deal of common ground with the California state agencies and the governor. Our ocean salmon harvests are more than 80% dependent on hatchery-origin salmon, particularly from the Central Valley’s huge hatchery systems.

PCFFA is generally supportive of modernizing those hatcheries, making best use of new hatchery management and marking technologies, and doing the very best we can to prevent hatchery fish from interacting or competing with wild fish trying to re-establish themselves in hopefully soon-to-be restored river habitats.

These reforms include completing comprehensive Hatchery Genetic Management Plans (HGMPs) and testing out new genetic diversity management tools like “parental-based tagging” (PBT). We need to be sure that hatchery practices are not eliminating the genetic diversity these runs need to better adapt to changing conditions, and also minimizing genetic drift from hatchery-origin fish breeding with the wild salmon with which they intermingle.  

Goal 5: Upgrading Technology and Management Systems

“Many salmon management decisions are based on data from prior years, but in a hotter, drier climate, the historical record is not as trustworthy a guide as it once was …  Improved forecasting, timely data about streamflow and temperature, rigorous science and consistent, state-of-the-art monitoring are just as important to the survival of salmon on many waterways in California as they are to ensuring reliable water supplies for cities and farms.” —Salmon Strategy

Three cheers for the governor on this one, also. Fisheries management has been limping along on obsolete equipment and incomplete data sets—and flawed modeling as a result—for many years. In some years, it’s hard even to know what is going on in the ocean or our rivers in real-time.

The emphasis in this section on real-time management tools, with centralized coordination among agencies, is a much-needed overhaul our industry would support 100%.

But every bit of this long-overdue technology upgrade needs to be funded by the legislature.  Revamping, upgrading and modernizing our entire salmon fishery management infrastructure is surely something that our industry can support.

Goal 6: Strengthening Partnerships

“While regulatory tools help establish standards, they have their limitations and it is vital that the businesses impacted by protective regulations and impacted by salmon loss are also a part of the solutions, from establishing more efficient irrigation practices to implementing best management practices for fishing and protection of water quality to investing in habitat and telemetry.” —Salmon Strategy

While this last section of the strategy talks largely about partnerships with the Tribes, with which we also frequently partner, some of our coastal fishing families have been working the seas for their livelihoods for generations.

For many of us, salmon and other types of fishing do more than generate income for ourselves and our families—it is also our way of life and our way of service. We also deliver fresh, nutritious seafood to America’s tables.

In short, the fishing industry we represent is also an important partner in all these salmon restoration efforts and should not be ignored. So our message to Gov. Newsom is this: Don’t leave us out!  

Glen Spain, J.D., is Northwest Regional Director of both the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). Lisa Damrosch is the executive director of both organizations. They can both be reached at: PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129 • (650) 209-0801 •