Fishermen’s News April 2014

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Saving Salmon from Drought

By John McManus, Dave Bitts, Zeke Grader, Glen Spain

Fish need water. That’s the reality we’re facing as California and southern Oregon move through their driest year on record. With little rain or snowfall forthcoming, the situation is dire for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed coastal fall Chinook and coho salmon in coastal watersheds, with dangerously low flows once again for Klamath basin Chinook.

Even worse is the situation existing in the Central Valley for listed Sacramento River winter and spring-run Chinook populations, along with the fall-run kings that account for about 90 percent of California salmon production and as much as 50 percent of Oregon’s ocean salmon catch. These fish migrate through a system — from Sierra streams to the Golden Gate — that also supplies water to about 16 million people and irrigates about $16 billion in agricultural crops. That means a huge water demand this year — for very little water.

Beginning late last year it was becoming clear to the fishing community that some drastic actions were going to be needed to save as many fish as possible to preserve a chance of fishing in 2016 and beyond. It was also clear that a drought response could not be left solely to the state and federal agencies, even assuming they were all well-intentioned, competent and energetic. Those agencies — and the fishing community — are up against some of the most powerful interests in the state when it comes to Central Valley water and flows through the Delta-San Francisco Bay estuary: San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and Southern California land developers supplied by the Metropolitan Water District.

One thing that is for certain with Central Valley salmon stocks is that their success is directly tied to flow. In years of high precipitation, ample flows will push juvenile fish down the system and into the expanded shallow water habitats where they will gain weight and strength before heading to sea. In years of low precipitation, however, baby salmon have higher mortality rates in low flowing, clear streams, as well as greater risk of becoming lost in the Delta. Making matters worse, in low flow years more freshwater is extracted for agriculture, since there is little water available elsewhere, with the fish getting sucked toward the massive state and federal pumps at the southern end of the Delta instead of going west to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.


Some preparations for drought response began serendipitously over two years ago in response to the planned Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), a massive Delta water diversion project dressed up as Habitat Conservation Plan under the ESA (see “Grand Theft Water,” FN September and October, 2012:, and Part of the response was the formation of a multi-interest coalition within the fishing community to specifically address Central Valley salmon issues — no small undertaking given the complexity of the Central Valley plumbing system and the powerful, well-heeled and well-connected parties involved.

California’s salmon fishing community has a long history of working in coalitions. Following the Legislature’s closure of the century-old Bay-Delta salmon net fishery in 1956, trollers and anglers, charter boat operators and guides, fish processors and scientists formed Salmon Unlimited to work together to rebuild fish stocks to prevent any further fishery closures. Again in 1968, following a threatened move by the California Fish & Game Commission to enact fishing closures due to destruction caused by the Red Bluff Diversion Dam and other units of the state and federal water projects, fishing groups came together and passed legislation creating the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Salmon & Steelhead Trout, which created three reports to the California Legislature and a spate of measures to improve conditions for salmon.

These groups continued working together on an ad hoc basis to help pass the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976, to fight the peripheral canal proposed in 1982, to develop the state’s salmon doubling policy, to join the 1988 NRDC San Joaquin River flow suit (culminating in the fish restoration program for the Central Valley’s second largest river), to help pass the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) in 1992, and on the 2004 litigation still on-going to protect fish from increased Delta pumping. Added to this were various coalition efforts with conservation groups to protect coastal salmon watersheds and work with Northern California Tribes for better flows and dam removal in the Klamath.

Most recently, thanks to the foresight and effort of Victor Gonella, a prominent North Bay auto dealership owner and avid hunter and salmon fisherman, the salmon community united in a formal organization, the Golden Gate Salmon Association (, specifically to address Central Valley salmon issues. Gonella had considerable fundraising experience with waterfowl groups and is now bringing this expertise to the salmon community.

PCFFA seized on the opportunity to establish a formal salmon coalition, recognizing the strength of diverse interests (as opposed to a single interest — commercial fishing), and the increased ability to fund raise for necessary personnel, ranging from contract scientists to public relations professionals, that PCFFA or any similarly situated organization could not pay for by itself.

Joining PCFFA in the formation of GGSA were groups including the Golden Gate Fishermen’s Association (charter boat owners), Coastside Fishing Club (anglers), Water4Fish, the Winnemum Wintu Tribe (whose salmon fishery was inundated with the construction of Shasta Dam), along with fish processors (e.g., Caito Fisheries), seafood restaurants (e.g., Scoma’s), fish distributors (e.g., Monterey Fish), numerous salmon-dependent businesses, and fishing guides and individual trollers and anglers. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Earthjustice, which have represented fishing groups in the past in fighting for salmon protections, are also involved with GGSA.

Over the past two years, GGSA raised enough funds through dinners and grant writing to hire staff and contract for a scientist and a public relations firm. The timing has proven opportune to tackle the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), this spring’s State Water Board flow hearings and to give the fishing community a single voice to respond to the drought — prodding the agencies (and Congress and the State Legislature) to put together an aggressive plan to save as many salmon as possible — and save the 2016 season and beyond.

Elements of a Strategy

Stakeholder-Agency Joint Initiative. In January, 2014, GGSA, PCFFA and other fishing groups wrote to the Secretaries of Commerce (National Marine Fisheries Service), Interior (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation), and California’s Natural Resources Agency (Departments of Fish & Wildlife, and Water Resources) calling for a joint meeting of the agencies with responsibility for fishery management, fish hatcheries and water management to hammer out a drought plan for saving salmon. The precedent for a joint agencies-stakeholder process was set in 1991 when the late Nat Bingham, a commercial fisherman and then-PCFFA President, initiated action to save Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon, which were then on the verge of extinction. Out of that process, headed by Bingham and Stan Barnes, then Chair of California’s Water Commission, came the Winter-Run Captive Broodstock Program to recover this unique run, the first Pacific salmon run listed under the ESA.

The fishing group letter was hand delivered by Congressman Peter DeFazio (OR) to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; members of the Northern California Congressional delegation followed up with a joint letter in support of the fishing community request. The request received a positive response and the first meeting was held in early March, 2014.

A major piece of the emergency plan will be an increase in off-site releases from hatcheries into the lower Delta or upper San Francisco Bay (see below) where juvenile fish have a better chance of survival than they do trying to navigate the rivers and Delta, especially in drought conditions. Those hatcheries are the state-run Feather River, Nimbus (American River), Mokelumne and Merced facilities, and USFWS’ Coleman operation on Battle Creek. Other elements to be considered will be strategic diversion gate closures during certain times of fish migration, and further restrictions on water diversions — both important for survival of natural-spawners — and some pulse flows if any water is available.

Off-Site Hatchery Releases. Since the 1976-77 drought, California has trucked a portion of its hatchery production to release sites in the lower Delta and San Francisco Bay. This practice has resulted in much higher fish survival rates, greatly increasing both catch and escapement compared to what’s achieved by releasing fish into the river at the hatchery. Survival of trucked hatchery fish has been further enhanced through the use of acclimation pens (funded in part by the Salmon Stamp) set up to protect them from predation before release into the wild.

A major concern with this practice, however, has been a significant increase in the rate of straying by returning spawners throughout the Central Valley. This has particularly been true from USFWS’ Coleman Hatchery on Battle Creek, just below Shasta Dam on the Sacramento. As a result, Coleman in most years has been reticent to truck any of their production downstream, even though in most years their fish have a very low survival rate once released into the river.

A potential solution to the straying issue has been two years of experimental “barging” of fish from the Feather River in a tanked fishing vessel (F/V Merva W) from Sacramento to the Golden Gate to determine whether the fish would better imprint to return to their hatchery site. During this drought emergency, however, it’s their survival, not straying, that is the major issue. Unfortunately, the trucking program is so far not set up to capture and truck naturally-produced juveniles, and their survival remains a very serious worry.

Legislation. Another concern with the drought and significant cut-backs to irrigated agriculture was any legislative response that would seek to take what little flow there was for fish and attempt to weaken existing fish protections, including end-runs around the ESA for listed runs, and stopping the San Joaquin River restoration program. GGSA, PCFFA and other fishing groups raised these objections in a letter on HR 3946 to the House Natural Resources Committee.

While our objections fell on deaf ears among the House majority, they were heard by members of the Senate (including Senators Feinstein, Boxer, Wyden and Merkley) and the Administration, who have proposed a financial relief package for agriculture instead of promising water that isn’t there. The one good fishery amendment taken in the House bill (HR 3946) was offered by Congressman DeFazio to provide speedy disaster relief for affected fishing communities.

Meanwhile on the Klamath

Record low flows in the Klamath could also crash the already fragile fall-run Chinook as well as devastate the few remaining ESA-listed coho there. Only ESA-required minimum instream flows might save them.

To its credit, the Bureau of Reclamation is making extraordinary efforts this year to conserve water within its Klamath Irrigation Project. However, its 2013 “emergency pulse flow” in the Klamath’s Trinity River tributary was aggressively attacked in court by Central Valley Agribusiness, and so far the Bureau has no plans to dig itself out by establishing an ongoing plan for future emergencies.

Ultimately, the best protection against this and future droughts in the Klamath would be for Congress to finally pass the Klamath Settlement Agreement legislation (see “Congress Must Act to Restore the Klamath,” FN March 2013: This Settlement would end decades of water conflict, restore water balance to the over-appropriated Klamath and provide far more water certainty for fish, farmers and Tribes than we have today.


We will not be able to measure the success of all of this effort until 2016, but what is evident is that if the fishing community does not act now, working with and prodding the agencies, we will have only ourselves to blame for a fishery failure in 2016. This is a time for the whole of the salmon community to pull together.

John McManus ( is the Executive Director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA). Dave Bitts ( is Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) President. Zeke Grader ( is PCFFA Executive Director and Vice-Chairman of GGSA. Glen Spain ( is PCFFA Northwest Regional Director.