The Fate of the San Joaquin River
By Larry Collins, Kalla Hirschbein
Sixty years ago, when state and federal agencies built the dams that dewatered the second largest salmon run 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% of the San Joaquin River’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, California salmon fishermen have nearly been wiped out as well. We’ve lost 90% 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’s time to get back to a sense of balance.
We have that chance now because of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Agreement (SJRRSA). 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.
The court ruled that the fish and salmon management agencies must 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 into the river to support fall and spring chinook salmon runs. They promised a minimum of 40,000 fish.
These agencies, including the 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 improvements, get permits, and create a reintroduction plan for a river that used to be the life blood of California 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. By last summer, all the necessary permits to reintroduce the spring-run Chinook were in place. Then, out of nowhere, our California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the agency in charge of bringing back our salmon, announced that 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 CFDW and the other agencies. Clearly reintroduction of salmon is not their first 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. 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 the 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 this failure 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 under the Restoration Agreement.
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.
We don’t need to plant and maintain water-hungry permanent crops. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t nearly the amount of permanent crops in the valley that there are today, and they’re still planting. While our water is wasted to make a few agri-businesses fat from money from our public resources, the majority of Californians are deprived of their salmon.
They have made their money. Now, it’s time to get salmon back in the San Joaquin River. The runs will still produce just a fraction of their former bounty, but it will help support the fishing fleet that’s left — the fleet that we haven’t destroyed yet. We’ve bled, we have given sweat and blood and lives, now it’s time for our fish agencies to step up.
To get CDFW and others to put more energy into salmon reintroduction, fishermen need to mobilize and speak up. With such a great season, it is easy to relax and sit back and feel like our hard work has paid off. The truth is, it has paid off. This great season is paying dividends on all the hard work we have done fighting for more water, more habitat conservation and better hatchery management practices.
After years of crippling closures and heavily curtailed seasons, the size and abundance of fish we are seeing now is a powerful reminder of how salmon fishing can be. But, let’s not pat ourselves on the back and feel like our work is done. Instead, salmon fishermen should use this season as fuel to stay engaged in Sacramento and involved with both our state and federal fish agencies.
The following is a letter that we, and many other fishermen, signed and sent to the fish and water agencies to try to get them moving on their obligations to get the San Joaquin River salmon running again:
“We, the undersigned commercial and recreational fishermen, urge you, the responsible natural resource and fish agencies, to act immediately and expeditiously to fulfill your legal obligations under the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Agreement, and bring fall and spring Chinook salmon runs back to the San Joaquin River.
“Prior to the construction of the Friant Dam, the San Joaquin River’s fall and spring Chinook salmon runs were among the largest on the Pacific coast. Devastating — and illegal — water policies dried up the river, wiped out salmon runs and degraded downstream water quality. It took eighteen years of litigation by salmon fishermen and conservation groups, adoption of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, and creation of the court-ordered San Joaquin River Restoration Program (SJRRP), but we have felt some optimism that we would once again be able to catch and provide San Joaquin River salmon to California and the nation.
“However, we are now deeply concerned that the lack of progress in reintroducing salmon reflects a lack of commitment and is a continuation of the status quo. The implementing fish and water agencies are responsible for restoring and maintaining 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. In signing the Settlement Agreement and an MOU with the State of California, you agreed to the terms of the Settlement that required you to reintroduce both spring and fall run Chinook salmon by the end of 2012 and to achieve the long-term population goals of 30,000 spring run and 10,000 fall run Chinook salmon.
“Yet despite having six years to prepare, your agencies have failed to live up to this commitment. While we recognize that the SJRRP is behind schedule to construct infrastructure projects, you have been aware of these delays for years and we are troubled that the SJRRP has not pro-actively developed and implemented existing strategies to reintroduce either of the salmon runs. The successful adult fall run translocation experiment that occurred last November demonstrated that adults can be moved upstream. However, the SJRRP’s failure to plan to provide a means for outmigration by juveniles produced by the successful spawning indicates a lack of attention and commitment. We expect much more.
“We have done our part and curtailed our fishing seasons. Our active fishing vessel numbers have dropped from the several thousands to the few hundred. From 2008-2009, California’s salmon fishery was completely closed for the first time in California’s history, with devastating impacts to thousands of men and women whose livelihood depends on the salmon fishery. Reintroduction of California’s San Joaquin salmon can bring back lost jobs, infuse our communities with opportunity, and ease pressure from the Sacramento River fall-run — the only fishable run left out of four that used to make up California’s iconic Central Valley salmon fishery.
“This fall we expect the SJRRP to meet its obligations under the SJRRSA and reintroduce both fall and spring run salmon. We understand your agencies are in the process of developing a salmon reintroduction plan this early summer. We request that you complete this plan without further delay and provide us a copy. With reasonably good expected returns of fall run Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River system, we request your agencies ensure adults are provided support as necessary to reach their spawning grounds and their offspring are enabled to get out of the system so we have fish to catch three years from now. We also expect you to take steps to complete the necessary permits and release 2013 brood year spring run juveniles into the river in 2014.
“This year, when we docked our boats to wait out the mid-season closures, we could not help but remember fishing salmon straight through from April to November in seasons past. We have borne the brunt of dismal mismanagement of our rivers including destructive water management policies. We have waited for decades to get our salmon back so that our businesses thrive again based on healthy runs of wild salmon.
“We hope you, as stewards of our natural resources and leaders of the agencies responsible for bringing back our salmon, will follow through with your obligations as set forth in the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Act, and reintroduce salmon this year and bring our salmon back to the San Joaquin River.”
Today’s commercial salmon fishermen are salmon stewards. We have spent decades, and many thousands of our own dollars, to help support and conserve and rebuild our salmon. We expect the same dedication and effort from our fish agencies, which have both the authority and obligation under the law, to do their part and help us keep our Central Valley salmon thriving.
Salmon fishermen do their part every season. Now we ask you, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Water Resources, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to do yours, and bring our salmon back to the San Joaquin River.
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. Larry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kalla Hirschbein is an independent Attorney specializing in fisheries, water law and policy. She worked for PCFFA and GGSA on Central Valley salmon issues, and is now helping the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association form their Community Fishing Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.