California’s Salmon On the Brink of Extinction

Jun 3, 2008
Sejal Choksi
by Sejal Choksi

Many people were surprised by recent headlines about the collapse of the Chinook salmon fishery in California.  The Bay has been an essential throughway for one of California’s last remaining salmon populations, which is the anchor for the state’s still-substantial commercial fishing industry.  In fact, the Bay Area’s local fishing economy is part of the $200 million Pacific commercial and recreational industry that depends heavily on Chinook salmon.  The collapse in population of this iconic California fish, known to many as “king salmon,” is a troubling development for all Californians.

Chinook salmon is a remarkable species of fish that hatches in the fresh water of the Sacramento River, travels through the Delta across the San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate into the Pacific Ocean.  Historically, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers that flow into the Delta provided habitat and spawning grounds for an incredible number of Chinook salmon.  The Sacramento River is unique in that it is the only river system that supports four different salmon runs: the fall, the late fall, winter, and spring runs.  (A “run” of salmon is a class of adult fish returning to their spawning grounds after several years in the ocean.)   
In the fall of 2007, it became clear to scientists that so few Chinook salmon would be returning to the Delta this year that there weren’t enough adults to reproduce and keep the population going.  In a last ditch effort to avert complete extinction, federal and state fishery managers recently decided to close the salmon fishing season – a drastic measure designed to protect the few remaining salmon. 

But why did the population suddenly get so small?  Scientists have attributed the decline of California’s salmon population to many different pressures ranging from warming of the oceans to habitat damage caused by agricultural pollution in the Delta.

One factor in particular, however, bears significant responsibility for the Chinook salmon population collapse: every year, an estimated 5.5 million acre-feet of water is pumped from the Delta.  For more than a century, dams and water diversions have been the solution to ever increasing water use in California.  As such, the Delta has been engineered beyond recognition, with thousands of diversions, hundreds of miles of canals and hundreds of dams designed to store, divert and deliver water.  While some of this water goes to supply cities in Southern California, the vast majority irrigates rice and other water-intensive crops grown unsustainably in the semi-arid Central Valley.  The massive pumping operation causes major problems for salmon, both by removing needed water and oxygen and by sucking in and killing millions of juvenile salmon that never make it to the ocean or reproduce. 

Several years ago, federal, state and regional water agencies floated a plan to increase withdrawals by an extra million acre feet (approximately 325 billion gallons) of freshwater from the Sacramento River every year.  A broad coalition of environmental groups – including Natural Resources Defense Council, California Trout, Friends of the River, The Bay Institute, Earthjustice, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and San Francisco Baykeeper – pressed for a thorough review process of the plans and, ultimately, sued the government for flawed science used to justify the water exports while downplaying the damage to endangered salmon.

In April, just as the salmon fishery collapsed, a federal court judge halted the water diversion plan, citing the government’s own scientific studies that predicted the additional water diversions would drive the spring run Chinook salmon to extinction.

This ruling is an important step forward in an attempt to save the remaining Chinook salmon.  Water diversions from the Delta must be managed in a way that protects these important fish and the integrity of the Delta as a whole.  In the meantime, all Californians should take water conservation to heart.  There are many things you can do for the sake of the salmon: reduce the number of days you water your garden; take shorter showers; make sure you run full loads in your dishwasher and washing machine; and consider installing a greywater system to reuse nearly-clean water to irrigate your yard.  Stay informed about developments in the protection of Chinook salmon, and do your part to protect the waters – and the fish – that are so important to all of us.

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