Why Healthy Fish Habitats Are Crucial to Our Fisheries

PCFFAPart 1 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. 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 column looks at why this is happening and how the fishing industry can reverse these downward trends.

Fishing as a profession should be first and foremost about conserving fish habitat. This is especially true of the West Coast’s once-abundant anadromous salmon runs, which depend upon inland watersheds to spawn and then rear their eggs. Without good places and favorable conditions within which to safely spawn and rear, no fish stocks – whether anadromous or fully ocean going – can long persist. And without good fish habitat, there are no fisheries, and we and our coastal, fishing-dependent communities wouldn’t exist.

Salmon especially are the best indicator species for healthy instream habitats. Today, however, too many of our once productive salmon-producing watersheds have been dammed, dewatered and polluted, and too many of the salmon runs we depend upon have been damaged and degraded as a direct result. Some once abundant salmon runs – like the unique winter-run Chinook of the California Central Valley, or Southern Oregon/Northern California Coho (SONCC) – have been so blasted by inland impacts over decades that it became necessary to protect these irreplaceable stocks under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) just to prevent their extinction.

And widespread wild salmon run extinctions are not just theoretical. According to American Fisheries Society (AFS) scientific assessments, hundreds of once abundant wild salmon runs have already been driven to extinction in the West Coast, and most of those few wild salmon runs that are still hanging on are severely depressed.

Fully ocean-going species also have their unique spawning and rearing habitat needs, and most of these species are utterly dependent upon healthy coastal waters, productive estuaries and unpolluted nearshore environments for their critical juvenile rearing stages.

The commercial fishing folks who founded PCFFA in 1976 realized this long ago, which is why a great deal of our effort at PCFFA, and of its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, has always been devoted over the years to identifying and conserving healthy fish habitat and working hard to recover and restore what has been damaged or degraded. All the haggling over how to fairly divide harvestable surpluses becomes meaningless if the stocks themselves that our industry depends upon continue toward collapse.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has long recognized this fact as well, which is why it established a Habitat Committee, and why that Committee is so active in asserting PFMC authority to protect PFMC-designated “essential fish habitat.” Indeed, it was PCFFA which championed amendments to the Magnuson Act to make essential habitat designations by the PFMC possible.

Why No River Can Be Left Behind – Weak Stock Management

One key aspect of managing intermingling ocean salmon stocks under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16 U.S.C. Sec. 1801, et seq.) is what is called “weak stock management.” For those not familiar with this mandate, sustainable fisheries management rules – both human-made and biological – require all ocean salmon fisheries harvests to be constrained by the least abundant (i.e., “weakest”) salmon stock within the intermingling complex of highly migratory salmon runs from multiple rivers that make up total ocean salmon stock abundance in any one year.

Otherwise, while intermingling with much more abundant stocks at sea, too much accidental harvest on this “weakest stock” could drive that stock to extinction. And then the next weakest stock would be at risk, and the next weakest after that, driving the whole system downward. Our ocean fisheries would then be totally unsustainable, becoming like Swiss cheese, with the “holes” (i.e., weak stocks) just getting bigger and bigger as more and more fall off the map.

What this means in practice is that the fishing industry has the strongest of economic incentives possible to help restore these weak stocks to health, in order to continue to harvest any of the other stocks from much more abundant sources. More abundance, particularly for the weakest stocks, translates directly into more harvest opportunities and more fish on the back deck.

In the past decade, the “weakest stock” of salmon for intermingling fisheries within the special central coastal ocean area called the Klamath Management Zone (KMZ) has frequently been the Klamath fall-run Chinook. For salmon runs coming from the California Central Valley, it has been the winter-run Chinook, intermingling with far more abundant but mostly hatchery-origin fall-run Chinook from the Central Valley, which migrate far north. For salmon from the Columbia Basin, weak stocks have included a number from the Snake River, which intermingle with other more abundant stocks all up and down the coast, including well up into southeast Alaska. In fact, about 50% of all the salmon harvested in southeast Alaska today originated in the Columbia Basin.

In parallel, there are also stringent control rules to minimize harvests on certain ESA-listed species: for instance, all of California has been in a “no directed harvest” regime for coho since 1993, well before these coho were ESA-listed in 1999, with at-sea incidental (i.e., accidental) harvests now severely constrained and capped at exploitation rates of no more than 13% of ocean abundance. Hit those coho incidental take limits, and major ocean Chinook fisheries are closed wherever those weak coho stocks tend to migrate.

An example of such widespread ocean Chinook salmon fishery closures was the Klamath-driven weak stock closure in 2006, which was imposed from Monterey Bay, Calif. to nearly the Oregon-Washington border – nearly 700 miles of coastline. This mandatory closure cost our industry an estimated $200 million in economic losses, only a fraction of which were ever reimbursed (years later) by federal fishery disaster assistance funds.

The total ocean closure in 2020, and again in 2021, of the California KMZ salmon fisheries, and stringent limits on ocean salmon harvests in the Oregon side of the KMZ, are also a direct result of extremely low spawner return rates in those years of fall-Chinook coming back to the Klamath. And those low spawner returns were themselves a direct result of epidemic fish disease outbreaks exacerbated by dams, too little cold water left in the river and overall loss of habitat.

Salmon: Where Their Habitat is Most Blocked or Damaged

Inland salmon habitat has suffered greatly from a variety of poorly thought-out development projects, but some places are habitat destruction hot spots. These are places where salmon productivity was historically very high, and habitat impacts have been great. However, these are also places that, with effective habitat restoration, could once again function as major salmon-producing centers. Here are some of them:

California’s Central Valley – Once producing the second-largest salmon runs in the continental U.S. (estimated average of 1 to 2 million spawners per year), most of the once key salmon-bearing rivers of the California Central Valley are today reduced to a series of reservoirs, dry rivers, dams and irrigation systems that suck up and kill juvenile salmon in large numbers. ESA-listed Central Valley winter-run Chinook, once down to only 186 returning spawners in 1993 (from 120,000 in 1969, and much more historically), and the far more abundant fall-run Chinook that are the backbone of California salmon fisheries, are today almost all hatchery produced, and in several recent years the California Central Valley’s irrigation water system has been nearly fatal to them all. But years of effort, including passing new laws such as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) brought some salmon habitat improvements.

The last remaining winter-run Chinook stock was brought back from the brink of extinction in 1997 by establishing a gene conservation hatchery – the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, located at the base of Shasta Dam – that was the vision of then PCFFA President Nat Bingham. Then, PCFFA-advocated removals of the California Central Valley Battle Creek and Wildcat Dams in 2010 gave the winter-run Chinook as well as ESA-listed spring-run Chinook renewed access to previously blocked cold-water habitat. This probably prevented their extinction.

Efforts that came out of 18 years of ultimately successful PCFFA-lead litigation also resulted in 2009 in the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act (part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009), which should result in the revival of one of the Central Valley’s formerly strongest salmon runs once fully implemented.

But the last 30 years have also seen massive political resistance to PCFFA-led salmon restoration efforts. Currently, PCFFA is lead plaintiff in federal litigation to undo damages done to California Central Valley salmon restoration plans by a 2019 “Biological Opinion” easing up on mitigation measures protecting ESA-listed salmon in the Central Valley Federal Irrigation Project (PCFFA, et al. vs. Ross, US Dist. Ct., N. Calif, Case No. 1:20-cv-00431). Salmon advocates are now working to protect these same runs from the impacts of the 2021 drought.

The Klamath Basin – Once producing the third largest salmon runs in the continental U.S. (estimated average of 880,000 returning adults/year), four obsolete hydropower dams currently bisect the basin, blocking salmon access to about 420 stream-miles of once fully occupied, high-quality habitat for more than 100 years. PCFFA is spearheading efforts for the removal of these dams, which are currently on track for full removal in 2023. Once removed, this will be one of the largest dam removal projects in human history to date, as well as a key element in one of the most comprehensive watershed restoration efforts ever undertaken.

Unfortunately, the four Klamath hydropower dams slated for removal have created ideal warm-water conditions for the spread of a virulent fish disease – Ceratnova shasta – which kills outgoing juvenile salmon. These widespread warm-water disease problems have also been exacerbated by cold water being taken out of the Klamath River every year by the federal Klamath Irrigation Project, which is hydrologically just above the dams. The river water also heats up in reservoirs behind the dams, creating massive toxic algae blooms and fatal water temperatures for fish.

PCFFA and California’s largest Native American tribe, the Yurok Tribe, whose homelands are in the lower Klamath River, have been fighting in federal court since 2000 to gain more water for Klamath salmon protections (see Yurok Tribe, PCFFA, et al. vs. Bureau of Reclamation, NMFS, US Dist. Ct., N. Calif., No. 3:19-cv-04405).

Columbia-Snake River – The Columbia River Basin was once the largest salmon-producing river in the world (pre-industrialized average run estimates vary between five million and 16 million adult returns/year), with more than 50% of this productivity coming from the Snake River tributary to the mainstem Columbia River. After decades of Columbia Basin dam building, four final dams – Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite – were built on the Snake River, the Columbia River’s largest tributary, in the 1960s and ‘70s without any environmental impact analysis.

Once built, they proved to be simply four dams too many. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged that the relatively minor economic benefits these dams provided were never justified, as compared to the enormous economic and social toll taken by lost fishing economies. Today, the Columbia Basin’s wild salmon runs are at less than 10% of historic abundances, and still declining. Most are now ESA-listed in efforts to stave off extinction.

PCFFA is a long-time member of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, which is working to remove the four lower Snake River dams in order to help restore these once mighty salmon runs. Snake River dam removal would have major recovery benefits for the regional, yet greatly diminished, salmon economy.

Part 2 will appear in the next issue of Fishermen’s News.

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.