Sometime soon, small-scale commercial fishermen in towns all along the West coast -- from California up to the Canadian border -- will find out whether their way of life is over.
Their fate rests on an analysis of last fall's run of Chinook salmon in the central California Delta region. The number of salmon returning from the sea to spawn there has been dwindling since 2004, when the Bush administration increased water exports from the rivers and estuaries of the Sacramento Delta to growers in the Central Valley.
That decline forced the complete closure of the salmon fishery in 2008 and 2009, to allow the salmon population time to recover. The shutdowns came at a high cost: nearly 2,700 people lost their jobs and the California economy took a $279 million hit, says NRDC staff attorney Doug Obegi:
"Fishing businesses across the State, particularly along the Central and Northern California coasts, have been hammered by the closure, from mom and pop bait and tackle shops to recreational fishing guides, from commercial salmon fishermen to the hotels and restaurants that depend on recreational salmon fishermen for their livelihoods."
Fishing communities have been hoping that after two years, the salmon population would show a strong recovery. That doesn't appear to have happened.
Matt Weiser covers water and environmental news for the Sacramento Bee. In January 2010, Weiser wrote that "the run as a whole seems likely to turn out the same or slightly smaller than in 2008, which was the smallest year ever recorded."
The End of Wild Salmon?
If that is the case, the salmon fishery may be closed again -- but this time for good. With no rebound coming from the closures, the fall run population could be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). All other salmon runs in California have diminished to the point that they are already protected by the ESA.
Closure of the fall run would mean the virtual end of salmon fishing on the coasts of California and southern Oregon.
NRDC's Obegi believes that the picture could change. Led by Obegi, NRDC last year successfully sued to force better water management in the area. Those changes are now going into effect and may bring about the population rebound that the fishing closures did not.
But first, fishermen and their supporters have to beat back an attempt to overturn the water management plan. The attack on the water controls is being brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative property-rights group.
Without the new stricter controls on water diversions, there seems to be little hope for the wild salmon to recover. An early analysis of the fall run showed a disturbing trend. Only 10 percent of the incoming salmon were actually wild. Nine out of 10 fish had tags showing that they had been raised in a hatchery and released as part of an effort to help the wild population recover.
A scientist who examined the data explained the significance of the finding to the Bee's Weiser: "What it looks like, really, is hatchery fish are not supplementing naturally produced fish; they are replacing them."
Photo: Wikimedia Commons