Today a group called the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) is planning to present a petition urging the government to eliminate environmental protections for salmon and other endangered fish in order to pump more water from the threatened Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem as the solution to our central valley water crisis. Whoa!
Let me start off by saying that this is NOT about a “worthless 2 inch minnow,” or an “inconsequential little worm," as some have described the Delta smelt –- it is about salmon! Protecting the delta smelt also helps protect salmon. Fishermen know that what’s good for the smelt is good for salmon and good for the health of the estuary.
I’m a commercial salmon fisherman and sometimes when I say that, people believe that I take folks out on sportfishing excursions, that’s not the case. I go out on my boat and harvest a great public resource for those who don’t have the means or ability to go out there themselves. When I come back to port, I sell these beautiful, sustainably-caught salmon to my neighbors at the farmers’ markets in our area. My commercial fishing permit entrusts me to harvest fish in a sustainable manner because these fish belong to ALL people in our State and we do want to make sure that there will be fish to catch next year, and every year until the end of time.
I’m pretty proud of doing a good job at it.
At least I was until two years ago, when excessive water diversions from our rivers and Delta totally destroyed our industry. In 2004, the Bush Administration issued new permits to allow the Delta pumps to export more water. And as these water exports increased, salmon numbers collapsed. So commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, Tribes, and environmental groups like NRDC joined together and sued to invalidate those permits, and we successfully won better protections for California's endangered salmon and other fish.
The damage was already done. Thousands of commercial salmon fishermen like myself are now out of work. Our boats stay tied to the docks along the entire California coast all the way into Oregon while tens of thousands more good jobs are lost in businesses that surround our fishing industry. Closing the salmon fishing season affects everyone from processors laying off their fish cutters to marine fuel docks and commercial tackle shops closing their doors. How do you think the local grocery store in Bodega is doing now that all of a sudden 100 hungry commercial fishermen don’t stop by any more to purchase groceries for their next trip and thousands of recreational anglers don’t come to their community any more because there’s no salmon to be caught? Not good.
The Department of Fish and Game estimated that the closure of our commercial salmon fishery cost the state 279 million dollars and nearly 2,600 jobs in 2009, and that’s a conservative estimate at best.
It doesn't have to be this way. Our salmon are an extremely resilient species, given half a chance they will come back by the millions in just a few years time. But pumping more water from the Delta will no doubt kill off one of the last remaining wild salmon runs in the West.
Protecting the Delta and its environment, protecting these endangered fish like winter run salmon or delta smelt, protects fishing jobs like mine, and protects jobs in communities like Ft. Bragg, Half Moon Bay, and Eureka. It protects water quality for everyone whose drinking water comes from the Delta. It protects farmers and communities in the Delta, and the economies along our coast and in the Delta that depend on recreational fishermen who come from around the State, and even the world, to go fishing.
Protecting salmon and other fish like delta smelt isn't a choice between people and fish. Like farmers, fishermen are food producers, and both are ways of life that California must -- and can -- sustain. And it simply isn't true that Endangered Species are the primary reason why some farmers and communities in the San Joaquin Valley are hurting this year. The drought of the past three dry years means that water's short around the state, not just folks who take water from the Delta.
If one looks at the facts, one will quickly find out that the average rainfall in California has stayed the same over the last 100 or so years. There have always been periods of drought and periods of excessive precipitation, but overall the amount of available water in our state always stays the same. Just a decade ago, the diminished rainfall we’re experiencing today -- 70 to 80 percent of the historical average for three years running -- would not even have been considered a drought.
What has changed is that corporate agriculture made a transition away from annual crops to higher value perennial crops such as almonds, for example. And agriculture will soon have to deal with the facts of nature that dictate that one should not proliferate permanent crops in a State that has an intermittent water supply.
If we were to take salmon and smelt entirely out of the equation and let them go extinct, as some farmers have called for, what would they get? Five percent more water than they have now. This does nothing to fix the underlying problem and we will very soon find out that the extra 5 percent evaporates as quickly as a drop of water on a hot stone by just planting a few more acres of trees – and then who are we going to blame after the “minnows” are gone?
While fishermen have fishing seasons, gear restrictions, limited entry fisheries, and other restrictions to make sure the fishery is sustainable, farmers do not. Maybe it is time to think about ideas like “tree limits”, “limited entry crops”, or “individual farming quotas” to help our water supply be used in a sustainable manner.
In California, the public owns the state’s water and its fisheries. These resources are not private property. The federal Central Valley Project was been built and paid for by the federal taxpayer, it also belongs to the people. Those who use our resources must do so responsibly. Our water and our fish are a public trust that gets handed down from generation to generation, and it is unfortunate that we have to rely on “big government” to uphold that trust, but it can’t be helped as long as some do not act responsible.
The Pacific Legal Foundation describes itself as a defender of property rights, limited government and free enterprise. If PLF believes in free enterprise, they should start by defending California’s salmon fishermen – small businessmen and women who depend on healthy rivers.
The Endangered Species Act helps us balance our needs and desires in a way that enables all to live in the same State and share its resources as good neighbors would. Abolishing the Endangered Species Act so that one interest group takes precedent over another group of citizens is about as stupid of an idea as suspending drunk driving laws on the 4th of July because some want to drive after a few extra cocktails.