Off the Deep End

Faced with increasing evidence that water exports from the California Delta are a key factor in the collapse of chinook salmon in the Central Valley, the Bush administration is claiming that “unfavorable ocean conditions” are the “likely culprit” for the dramatically low returns of Sacramento River fish.

Central Valley chinook salmon, in spite of the billions of dollars spent on “restoration programs” by the state and federal governments, are in their greatest crisis ever. The population plummeted from a record abundance of 804,401 fish in 2002 to only 90,414 salmon in 2007.

The sharp decline of the Central Valley king salmon is expected to result in an economic disaster for the commercial and recreational sportfishing industry, an industry already hammered by groundfish restrictions resulting from decades of mismanagement by the state and federal governments.

“We are not dismissing other potential causes for this year’s low salmon returns,” said Usha Varanasi, the NOAA Fisheries Service Science Center Director for the Northwest Region. “But the widespread pattern of low returns along the West Coast for two species of salmon indicates an environmental anomaly occurred in the California Current in 2005.”

“The collapse of the Sacramento chinook salmon is a catastrophe,” said Roger Thomas, president of the Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association, who is working with Representative Mike Thompson to get disaster relief for the recreational and commercial fishing industries impacted by the Central Valley salmon collapse. “My fear is that we’re looking at more than one year where the Sacramento River system will be in crisis.”

Researchers from NOAA’s Northwest and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers are comparing data on the low food production of the California Current in 2005 that occurred when this year’s returning salmon would have been entering the ocean from their natal streams to feed and grow, according to a statement from NOAA Fisheries.

“The cold waters of the California Current flow southward from the northern Pacific along the West Coast and are associated with upwelling, an ocean condition caused by winds that bring nutrients to the ocean’s surface and is the main source of nourishment for the ocean’s food web,” said NOAA Fisheries. “In 2005 a southward shift in the jet stream, delayed favorable winds and upwelling for the California Current, which normally begins in spring. The winds instead arrived in mid-July, causing high surface water temperatures and very low nutrient production within the nearshore marine ecosystem.”

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) on Thursday released data indicating that the 2007 returns of fall chinook salmon to the Sacramento River in California’s Central Valley were approximately 33 percent of what fishery biologists expected. Projections for 2008 are substantially lower than last year’s estimate.

The alarming decline of Central Valley salmon was disclosed in an internal memo from NOAA Fisheries in January stating that the run was in “unprecedented collapse.” Coho salmon in southern California and Oregon watersheds, listed as either endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, are also apparently in bad shape.

“Coho salmon returning to spawning streams in California and Oregon are also considerably lower than predicted,” according to NOAA Fisheries. “A preliminary analysis found an average 27 percent of the parental stock returning in 12 streams monitored in California. Even though coho returns appear to improve along the coast from south to north, Oregon Coast coho salmon had less than 30 percent of their parental stock return.”

Although there is no doubt that ocean conditions have an impact on salmon populations, the unprecedented and catastrophic nature of the Central Valley salmon collapse points to other factors, led by state and federal government exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. John Beuttler, conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, lays the Central Valley salmon decline squarely on the dramatic increase of water exports from the Delta.

“The salmon decline exactly parallels the decline of every other species in the Delta impacted by the increased pumping,” said Beuttler. “From 2001 to 2007 delta exports increased from 5 million acre feet to peaks over 6.3 million acre feet. The Delta’s food web has collapsed as has salmon survival.”

“Ocean conditions are up and down,” said Dick Pool, coordinator of water4fish.org, a coalition of fishing organizations working to restore California fisheries. “They are something beyond our control. But there are a lot of things that the state and federal governments can do now to improve the state of our salmon fisheries. This crisis we’re now in didn’t start one year ago ­ it was decades in the making.”

During a meeting with DFG Acting Director John McCamman last Wednesday, Beuttler and Pool recommended a series of eight immediate actions that should be taken to restore Central Valley salmon, steelhead and other fish.

These include the imposition of rigid emergency water export restrictions for the state and federal water projects from the Delta during the out migration periods of salmon and steelhead; mitigation for all fish losses; state of the art screening of all major water diversions and pumping facilities in the Delta; and state of the art fish collection and salvage operations of all the fish currently entrained.

Other actions include improved hatchery operations including trucking of all of the imprinted salmon and steelhead to locations below the delta; expansion and use of net pens for the grow out of salmon, steelhead and striped bass; appointment of a joint government and fisherman task force to scope, plan and expedite short term projects and regulatory actions that can help the fishery; and bringing pollution from the agricultural return flows in Delta tributaries into compliance with the Clean Water Act standards ASAP.

These emergency actions, rather than NOAA Fisheries blaming “ocean conditions” for the salmon collapse, are exactly what are needed to restore Central Valley salmon, steelhead, striped bass and other fish populations. The question is whether the state and federal governments are willing to take these long-overdue actions after decades of mismanagement.


Emergency DFG Actions Requested by The Fishermen of California

1. Impose rigid emergency water export restrictions for the State and Federal Water Project from the Delta during the out migration periods of salmon and steelhead stocks. These should be set to dramatically reduce the killing of millions of smolts that are pulled out of their historic migration routes to the sea and are lost as they are pulled across the Delta and are drawn into the pumps and destroyed annually. Pumping operations should also be set to properly position and then protect the
food web for smolts as they traverse the 100 miles of delta waters.

2. Require mitigation for all fish losses. The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Projects do not mitigate for indirect losses of fish that result from project operations that pull out-migrants into the interior Delta where many of them are lost before they get to the pumping plants. In addition, the CVP, unlike the State Water Project, does not mitigate for the direct losses of fish destroyed by being entrained into their pumping plant. Such losses also include those lost in the salvage process. This must be corrected. Millions of salmonids and other species are lost annually. The total since the projects went on line is absolutely horrendous and the cumulative impacts accounts in large part for the decline of these fisheries.

3. Require state of the art screening of all major water diversions and pumping facilities in the Delta including the state and federal project pumps. The old louver screens at both projects are ineffective and outdated and the agencies that operate them know full well that they need to be replaced.

4. Require state of the art fish collection and salvage operations of all the fish currently entrained and subsequently salvaged at the state and federal projects. Millions of fish are currently lost annually due to stress and predation with today’s antiquated systems. The requirements should include modern collection, handling and net pen acclimation facilities.

5. Improved hatchery operations including trucking of all of the imprinted salmon and steelhead to locations below the delta. Acclimation of these fish using proven pen technology where the fish are held in net pens and subsequently released significantly reduces predation and generated survival and improved escapement rates that are several orders of magnitude higher than simply jettisoning the fish out of the trucks into the water. The department should have contracts in place for this acclamation process, as the release of hatchery fish begins soon. Given the decline of the fall-run salmon, this action alone could double the number of 2008 salmon that return in 2011.

6. Expansion and use of net pens for the grow out of salmon, steelhead and striped bass. This technology has been proven to substantially improve survival rates. Salmon pens are now operated by the Tyee Club in Tiburon and in other communities. Striped bass pens were successfully operated in Suisun and San Pablo Bays in the 1990’s. The baby fish are raised for up to one year and then released.

7. Appointment of a joint government and fisherman task force to scope, plan and expedite short term projects and regulatory actions that can help the fishery. Knowledgeable representatives of both the sport and commercial sectors should be included as well as representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and NMFS. This group should meet regularly and have access to the agency resources.

8. Pollution from the agricultural return flows in Delta tributaries must be brought into compliance with the Clean Water Act standards ASAP. The department should be the lead agency in an aggressive campaign to compel the regional and State Water Resources Control Boards to stop pollution at is source instead of allowing over fifty miles of Delta waters to be significantly impaired and out of compliance with the Clean Water Act and the state’s basin plan objectives. This noncompliance has significant impacts to the Delta’s foodweb and needs to be stopped now.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: danielbacher@fishsniffer.com






More articles by:

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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