Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Fisherman’s View of the Salmon Crisis

By Dave Bitts

I wanted to become a salmon fisherman the first time I saw boats trolling around Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg as a kid. I have always approached this business with the attitude that we must leave the salmon fishery in good shape for the next generation.

Now, I worry whether we will leave our children and grandchildren any salmon at all. We've abused our rivers to the point that the fish are on the verge of permanently vanishing. Commercial and recreational fishermen, ice houses, fuel docks, boat yards, gear stores and other businesses could disappear along with the salmon.

Faced with a predicted salmon run in the Sacramento River of only half the minimum needed number of spawners, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council closed all commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California and Oregon and imposed significant restrictions in Washington. It's probably the right thing to do in these circumstances, but they took away my livelihood in one fell swoop. I had hoped I would add to my retirement this summer, not deplete it.

California trollers make most of our income from salmon. This is the third dismal salmon season in a row, coming on the heels of two mediocre crab seasons that would normally help offset the loss of salmon income. Many of us won't survive this disaster without significant help – and big changes in the way we treat rivers.

It's easy to fault ocean conditions for the salmon crisis, since we can't control the marine environment and no single entity can be held accountable.

This isn't just about ocean conditions. It's about our poor stewardship of our watersheds. Salmon evolved to deal with fluctuating ocean conditions. They didn't evolve to survive dams and unmitigated water diversions. Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon had been recovering until 2004, but after the federal government diverted more than half of the river's natural flow in 2005, Sacramento's salmon population began collapsing. Look north to Alaska, which has robust salmon runs and robust commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing. The difference is Alaska's free-flowing rivers aren't overcommitted to quench the insatiable and often wasteful thirst of cities, cotton crops, swimming pools and golf courses.

The Sacramento River system once yielded 2 million Chinook salmon a year. This year, with no fishing, 60,000 adults are expected to return. Wild salmon populations likewise are in dire straits in the Klamath and the Columbia-Snake river systems. The West Coast was once home to the most productive watersheds in the world, with these three river systems producing between 13 million and 19 million salmon a year.

All now suffer from too many dams, unsustainable water diversions and the suppression or politicization of science. Federal judges now are refereeing salmon recovery plans because the Bush administration refuses to follow the law and do the minimum necessary for salmon survival. The result is a West Coast disaster that will cost California's salmon industry $150 million.

Like most fishermen, I'm willing to forgo fishing this season. But for decades, the government's main fish recovery strategy has been to force more restrictions on fishermen, while ignoring flow and water quality issues. This is true in spite of the hundreds of millions that have been spent on restoration projects. The result is fewer salmon and fewer fishermen. We're not addressing the real cause.

We need Congress to immediately investigate the West Coast salmon crisis. Tell your senators and representatives to make sure federal agencies stop suppressing science and start following the law. In addition, West Coast fishermen and the broader economic community that depends upon salmon for its livelihood need immediate disaster relief.

Most of all, tell our leaders: We owe it to our coastal communities, to the hard-working families who have depended upon fishing for 150 years and to everyone who enjoys salmon for dinner, or even just knowing salmon are around, to make our rivers safe for salmon so we all have a future. If we can't learn to coexist with salmon, are any wild creatures safe from us?

About the writer:
Dave Bitts is both board member and secretary of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association. A lifelong Californian, he is a salmon troller and crabber in Eureka.

No comments: