Salmon Fishermen Need San Joaquin Fish: They Belong in That River
By: Larry Collins
San Francisco Community Fishing Association
Sixty years ago, when state and federal agencies built the dams that dewatered the second largest river in California, it might have seemed like a good idea. Now we know better. It was a disaster for salmon and salmon fishermen. Nearly 95 percent of San Joaquin’s flow was diverted. Sixty miles of river ran dry and the salmon – one of California’s most productive runs – was wiped out.
Since then, salmon fishermen have nearly been wiped out as well.
We’ve lost 90 percent of the fleet because of excessive water diversions and poor water management policies that continually put salmon last despite clear scientific evidence and laws that should have supported our fisheries. It is time get back to a sense of balance. We have that chance now because of the San Joaquin River Restoration Agreement. We just need our fish agencies to get off the dime and reintroduce our spring and fall runs like they promised.
It has been more than six years since we won the eighteen-year court battle over the dewatering of the San Joaquin River. The court sided with us – salmon fishermen and our allies, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations – and ruled that the fish and salmon management agencies need to restore and maintain fish populations in good condition in the main stem of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River, including naturally-reproducing and self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish.
The resulting San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Agreement (SJRRSA) called for an extensive multi-agency effort to put enough water back in the river to support fall and spring Chinook salmon runs. These agencies, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the California Department of Water Resources, all committed to a salmon reintroduction that was supposed to begin by 2012.
It has been six years since this decision. Six years is more than a reasonable amount of time to study, make initial improvements, get permits, and create a reintroduction plan for a river that used to be the life and blood of Central Valley salmon. For them not to have used those years to compete the necessary steps is a fundamental, unacceptable outcome.
But it gets worse. Last summer, all the necessary permits to reintroduce the spring-run Chinook were in place. Then, out of nowhere, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced they weren’t even within six months of where they should have been, but needed an additional year and a half.
Clearly there are communication and coordination problems among the implementing agencies. Clearly reintroduction of salmon has not been a priority. But we cannot wait any longer. We need our San Joaquin River salmon.
Please do not misunderstand – the San Joaquin River Restoration Program is not a failure. It is not coming apart. In fact, the responsible agencies have made great accomplishments in terms of water supply projects and flood protections. The failure lies in that they are seemingly unable to organize themselves to take necessary steps to make the right levels of improvements to reintroduce salmon. They are failing in their commitments to the fishermen. Now we need fishermen to help make clear that failing is not acceptable.
The fish belong in that river. What happened to that river is a crime against nature.
Now we need to get on with the business of restoring the runs. The agencies all agreed to the terms of the SJRRSA and of the reintroduction of salmon. It is not just the moral thing to do – salmon belong in rivers with water – it is their legal obligation both under the restoration agreement and the Public Trust Doctrine.
The Public Trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources belong to all, and cannot be privately owned or controlled because of their inherent importance to each individual and society as a whole. This means the San Joaquin River, its water, and its salmon, all belong to us: the people of California. A clear declaration of public ownership, the doctrine means that public rights are superior over private rights for critical resources, like water. It gives the state of California the affirmative duties of the trustee to manage our natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations. The doctrine embodies key principles of environmental protection, stewardship, communal responsibility, and sustainability.
We, the people of California, have a right to have clean water in the San Joaquin River, and healthy enough habitat to support runs of Chinook salmon. It is also the right of Californians to get to eat our salmon. Chinook, or king, salmon is the best food California produces. It is the food of the gods. All we need to do is keep our rivers healthy and get out of the way; the fish do the rest.
Larry Collins fished commercially for salmon and Dungeness crab for 30 years before he helped start the San Francisco Community Fishing Association. He is PCFFA Vice-President, President of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, and as a vocal advocate for maintaining our Public Trust fisheries resources is regularly sought after for his opinions on Bay Area fisheries issues.
A Fisherman’s Perspective: Collapse of the Salmon Fishery
By: Ben Platt
Following is the text of the speech fisherman Ben Platt gave in 2008 at a fundraising and outreach event for the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and local salmon fishing fleet, at the Botanical Gardens in Mendocino, CA:
My name is Ben Platt and I am a second generation commercial fisherman from Fort Bragg. I want to thank everyone for coming to the Botanical Garden to enjoy the subdudes and help support our salmon fleet and the Botanical Garden.
As many of you may already know, 2008 is the first year in the history of the West Coast salmon fishery that the ocean season has been completely closed to all sport and commercial fishing. This action was taken due to the collapse of the fall Chinook run in the Sacramento River. The biologists predict a very small run this year and think the season will probably have to be closed in 2009, as well. For the first time since immigrant Italian fishermen sold salmon in San Francisco in the 1850s, boats are tied to the docks and hoists are silent. An important way of life on this coast is being threatened, and that is why I am here speaking to you today.
Salmon are a unique, beautiful fish who are born in the river, migrate to the sea and return to the river to reproduce. They are resilient fish, but even the mighty salmon can only take so much abuse. In recent years, conditions in the San Francisco/Bay Delta have worsened. Increasing diversions of water for agriculture and urban development, pesticide run-off, irrigation pumps which suck in baby salmon, and the loss of riparian habitat are some of the problems plaguing this river system.
What is amazing is that, just a few years ago, fishermen were having incredible ocean harvests. The Sacramento River was producing huge runs of Chinook, with the help of strong hatcheries and a new program which trucked many of the juvenile fish from their hatcheries directly to the bay, avoiding problem spots in the delta. Once they were brought to the edge of the bay, net pens were being employed to help acclimate the smolts before they were towed to deeper water and released. This program greatly increased survival rates of the out-migrating fish and helped produce record runs. Up until 2006, an average of over 500,000 and as many as 1 million adult salmon were returning to spawn in the Sacramento River every year. In 2003, when the fisheries council allowed three and a half months of commercial fishing north of Point Arena, $11.7 million in salmon income was generated by boats fishing out of our own Noyo Harbor. A few short years later and we find ourselves literally “up the creek without a paddle.”
Why is it important to support us in our effort to restore the salmon fishery? Well, you might say that the salmon in our rivers are like the canary in the gold mine; that is, if salmon can’t survive, then you have something seriously wrong with your river. A recent study of salmon released upstream from Coleman Hatchery showed that only four fish out of 200 survived to reach the Golden Gate Bridge. Time to get out of the gold mine. Or, in this case, to fix the river!
What would happen if there was a referendum on your ballot in November asking if you would like to have clean rivers and robust salmon runs for generations to come? I would bet that most Californians would vote an enthusiastic “hell yes!” Well, the problem is that nobody is asking you what your opinion is; they are just stealing as much of your water as they can and polluting what is left of it. And they are doing it without your permission.
I think commercial fishermen often get a bad rap, and it deeply bothers me because I know that we don’t deserve it. Why? I believe that we are a valuable part of our coastal communities. I think that we embody the true spirit of the American dream, to be free and independent while contributing to the whole. Our dream just happens to take place out there on the ocean. All West Coast fisheries are tightly regulated and conducted in a sustainable, environmentally sound manner. We are family-operated businesses who care about our communities and care deeply about restoring salmon resources.
So why should commercial fishing matter to you? Well, this ocean and these rivers are resources that are held in trust for the public. Fishermen provide you with access to this resource. The ocean’s bounty is fresh, wild seafood, and it is something that most Americans would never have access to if we weren’t here to harvest it for you. Without us, all seafood would be imported, mainly from corporate fish farms complete with pesticides, harmful levels of antibiotics and serious lack of flavor.
As bleak as the salmon picture may look right now, the solutions are fairly simple. Salmon are a sustainable resource. Salmon don’t demand a whole lot, but they do need cool, clean, quickly-moving water to survive their journey to and from the sea. United we have a powerful voice. If we just demand that these conditions be restored to our three major salmon-producing rivers, the Columbia, Klamath and Sacramento rivers, and hold our regulators accountable to the water quality laws which are already in place, we can have healthy rivers and salmon runs for generations to come.
And, even though there will not be a referendum on these issues on your ballot, if you are a voter in this district, you will have the chance to cast a vote for salmon in November. Congressman Mike Thompson has been a tireless and pro-active leader in the fight to save our salmon fishery and protect our rivers and he is up for re-election this year. He also authored legislation which provided disaster assistance to our fleet in 2006 when problems on the Klamath River caused severe restrictions in our fishery and again this year when the season was completely closed. If it were not for Mr. Thompson and the other members of Congress from California who pushed for this package, many of us would not be able to survive these closures. Please help us re-elect Mike Thompson to Congress.
Noyo Women for Fisheries, Salmon Trollers Marketing Association and many other local fisheries organizations are here with educational displays, as well as Lori and Jeff French from Half Moon Bay with their Faces of California Fishing and Mike Hudson from the Bay Area’s Small Boat Association and Salmon Aid. If you are interested in learning more, any of us would be pleased to talk with you. And I would also like to thank the Botanical Garden for reaching out to the fishing community and including us in this benefit.