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NorCal farmers step up for fish

Water Lines: Media reports accompanying the salmon season closure have been rife with misinformation.

Dan Keppen

May 11, 2023

3 Min Read
Chinook salmon
The return of 3-year-old fall-run Chinook to spawn in the Sacramento River this year is expected to be the lowest since 2008. UCANR

California’s Chinook salmon fishing season has been called off, but not for the reasons you have read about in the media.

Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in March announced that the forecasted return of 3-year-old fall-run Chinook to spawn in the Sacramento River this year would be the lowest since 2008.

The forecasted numbers expected to return to the Klamath River, which drains parts of Northern California and Southern Oregon - are the second lowest since 1997.

In response to the discouraging numbers, the Pacific Marine Fishery Council (PMFC) announced on March 5that the salmon fishing season for 2023 was closed, putting hundreds of commercial fishers out of work and disappointing thousands of recreational fishers.

Even before the PMFC announcement, the usual critics and certain media outlets quickly started pointing fingers. Certain ocean commercial fishing interests and allies among some environmental organizations have been the loudest critics in the press, directing blame on water allocations to farmers and urban water users.

There is another side of the story, as recently reported by the Center for California Water Resources Policy and Management (Center).Reports accompanying the salmon season closure have been rife with misinformation, repeating three persistent and self-serving myths regarding the factors that have contributed to the imperiled state of Central Valley salmon runs:

  • Myth #1 - Ocean harvest of Chinook salmon is not contributing to the continuing decline of central California’s salmon runs;

  • Myth #2 - Hatchery salmon are the same as wild salmon; and

  • Myth #3 — Water project operations are the primary cause of the decline in salmon numbers.

The Center posted a detailed blog that rebuts these myths.

While some in California point fingers during challenging times, others instead recognize there are impacts to every use of water during dry years.

Sacramento Valley producers Bryce Lundberg, Fritz Durst and Nicole Van Vleck last month sent a letter to the U.S. Commerce Department supporting the April 6 request by Governor Newsom for a Federal Fishery Disaster Declaration for the California salmon industry with the anticipated closure of the 2023 salmon season.

“In the Sacramento Valley, we have felt the impacts of the dry years in various ways and we fully understand and empathize with the families and fishing communities financially impacted by a closure of the 2023 salmon season,” the trio wrote.

Fortunately, we know that farmers, local communities, constructive conservation groups, tribes, other stakeholders, and government agencies can work together. It’s possible to develop water solutions that reconcile the needs of waterfowl and fisheries in a way that multiple species can thrive in harmony. The Family Farm Alliance prepared extensive written testimony in advance of a March 8 House committee hearing on Capitol Hill that I testified at. It provides such examples from the Sacramento Valley, Washington’s Yakima Basin, and Central Oregon.

These actions reinforce our belief that solutions can be reached that address the true stressors on fish in a way that doesn’t take away water supplies from farmers and ranchers.

[Keppen is executive director of Family Farm Alliance.]

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