Why Healthy Fish Habitats Are Crucial to Our Fisheries

PCFFAPart 2 of 2: This year, due to yet another year of forecasted low ocean salmon abundances, California commercial salmon harvesters have roughly 85 less days on the water (184 vs. 286 days) compared to 2020, and less in 2020 than in most previous years. This steady reduction in opportunity is intended to ensure that escapement goals for Sacramento River Chinook runs are met.

The California portion of the Klamath Management Zone (CA/OR border to Fort Bragg) is also closed completely to commercial harvesters for the second year in a row, due to low fall Chinook returns forecasted for the Klamath River. All across the board, fishing opportunities have been steadily declining –  but not as a result of fishing pressures or the need to prevent overfishing. Rather, fishery declines – particularly for salmon – have been powered primarily by declining habitat productivity. This article looks at why this is happening, and what the fishing industry can do, and is doing, to reverse these downward productivity trends.

Other Important PCFFA Inland Salmon Habitat Restoration Efforts – Among other important efforts to protect existing salmon habitat, or to restore access to damaged but still restorable habitat, are the following PCFFA programs:

(A) Killing the Pebble Mine Project on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. It is insanity to place a huge and highly destructive open pit mine in the major watershed of the most important remaining salmon-generating river system in the world, which is Bristol Bay. This massive and highly destructive project has been proposed, disapproved, revived and approved, and then again disapproved, according to recent political winds. It is strongly opposed by the most important single industry in Alaska, which is commercial fishing. PCFFA also opposes the project as a threat to major salmon runs.

(B) Removing multiple smaller dams. PCFFA is actively working to remove several smaller dams that nonetheless block major salmon runs, including: the Potter Valley Project in northern California, which blocks the Eel River; Winchester Dam, which blocks 160 miles of good salmon habitat in the North Umpqua River in southern Oregon, and; several minor dams in the Columbia Basin that block salmon from its tributaries. Other salmon-killing dams, like Oregon’s Savage Rapids Dam, PCFFA has helped successfully remove.

(C) Repairing hundreds of blocked culverts in Washington State as required by law. PCFFA filed amicus briefs to support Pacific Northwest Tribes’ efforts in their successful suit (State of Washington v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 17-269) to require the State of Washington to repair hundreds of defective culverts all along its coastline that block multiple salmon runs.  One of the best “bang for the bucks” projects in restoring salmon runs is to repair failed culverts.  PCFFA strongly supports these renewed – and now legally mandated – Washington State culvert replacement and repair programs, which had been chronically underfunded.

(D) Reforming forestry and agricultural practices that pollute salmon streams. Many common agricultural practices, particularly in California’s Central Valley, are highly destructive of key salmon habitat areas. Commercial logging riparian protection practices in Oregon are also well below minimum standards needed to restore damaged in-stream salmon spawning and rearing habitat, or to meet state water quality standards. PCFFA and IFR are working through the courts, as well as through on-going negotiations, with these industries seeking to improve these common industrial practices to better protect salmon habitat.

(E) Curtailing salmon-killing water pollution. PCFFA and IFR have both been engaged for years in Clean Water Act litigation to curtail multiple water pollution sources in the Columbia River (and elsewhere in Washington State) that affect salmon, lawsuits recently resulting in new water quality standards in Washington State that are at least 17 times more protective than previous human toxic exposure limits from eating salmon and other seafood. We also played a major role in Oregon’s adopting similar water quality standards before Washington’s. Likewise, our successful litigation in multiple federal courts has greatly improved riparian protections for salmon, protecting them from multiple pesticides. 

Maintaining Healthy Estuaries and Ocean Fish Habitats

Inland pollution all eventually runs into the ocean through the estuaries, where it can disrupt essential fish habitat for multiple estuary-dependent species and then spread out into the coastal shelf where it can bio-accumulate.

Ocean ecosystems already face several severe threats from climate change-driven increases in average ocean temperatures, shifting of upwellings and increasing ocean acidification. But all of these new stressors are exacerbated when combined with an overlay of toxic chemicals. One thing we can do to protect fragile ocean ecosystems and make them more resilient to climate change is to reduce or eliminate exacerbating toxic pollution coming from inland industries. 

There are also other new threats to ocean essential fish habitat that are rapidly emerging, including: commercial open-ocean aquaculture operations in various planning stages, especially since designations of Aquaculture Opportunity Areas that may become major sources of pollution, or be vectors for disease transmission to wild species; potential destruction of essential fish habitat areas in the ocean triggered by poorly planned offshore energy development; dredge spoil disposal plans that may adversely affect key bottom-dwelling species’ habitat, and; the ever-present threat of offshore oil development, as well as emerging threats from newly proposed ocean mining operations.

In short, from many directions, in many ways, our industry’s future existence could be threatened by growing pressures to industrialize our nation’s coastal continental shelves. 

Habitat Matters

Our industry must remember that our future fishing opportunities are all dependent, directly or indirectly, on maintaining the productivity of the ocean and inland habitats from which the species we harvest come. This fact gives our industry a moral as well as economic obligation to make sure these key habitats are conserved and, where damaged, restored. 

The PFMC’s Habitat Committee’s existence serves as an early warning system to alert our industry to issues that will affect that habitat. I am proud to say that many fisheries organizations, including PCFFA, are rising to that challenge.

Glen Spain is the Northwest Regional Director of both the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the west coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families, and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). He is also currently the commercial fishing industry representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) Habitat Committee. He can be reached at the joint PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office, PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000, Email: fish1ifr@aol.com.  PCFFA’s Homepage is pcffa.org.