A sad tale: The decline of California’s salmon fisheries

Some environmental problems are abstract, affecting places far away and species rarely seen. Others are as close as our supper plates.

The crash of salmon in California affects us all. This once-abundant fish, famed for huge king salmon in numbers so great they crowded our rivers, is now teetering at the edge of extinction.

These are not just trophy and sport fish. They form the backbone of California ecosystems, tribal cultures, local economies, a commercial fishing industry and a once-plentiful, wonderful food. Most Californians would mourn the loss of salmon, and rightly so.

This will likely be the second year in a row with no commercial or sport ocean salmon season. This is not an anomaly — it is the sad result of a long-term trend that government and the public have been unable to stop. And, as last year’s no-catch season demonstrates, a blanket ban on fishing will not, by itself, reverse that trend.

Salmon have borne the brunt of development in California. With every major dam, they lose habitat. With every ounce of polluted runoff from farm or city, they lose water quality. With every quart pumped from once free-flowing rivers, they lose water. In-stream pumps trap juveniles against screens; invasive species steal habitat and eat young fish; wildland roads dump sediment into streams; and hatchery management practices are incapable of replacing natural spawning. Add to this the natural — and human-induced — changes wrought on climate, the ocean and streambeds, and the salmon face one tough uphill swim.

One pernicious practice affecting water quality and the beds of streams is motorized in-stream gold mining. Gasoline-powered engines on suction dredges on pontoons or rafts are used by people to scoop up riverbeds in order to find grains of gold in Northern California streams. Sediment from suction-mining covers emerging salmon in stream gravel. The suction alone, in the deep, cool parts of wild streams, kills young fish.

Statewide, there are about 3,000 miners operating in places like the Klamath, Scott and Shasta watersheds who buy permits from the California Department of Fish and Game. Resident permits cost about $50. Combined with non-resident permit sales, they generate from $150,000 to $200,000 annually for a program which costs DFG more than $1.25 million each year to enforce.

In contrast, California fishermen buy 2.4 million fishing licenses each year. The sport-fishing industry supports a total of 43,000 jobs paying $1.3 billion in wages and salaries annually. Fishing equipment sales total more than $2.4 billion per year. And salmon, highly susceptible to the impacts from suction dredges, are traditionally the most important fish to Northern California commercial fishermen and native tribes.

Yet late last month, the DFG rejected a petition to restrict mining in areas most important to fish. The department director seemed more swayed by a partisan letter from the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors in support of the miners than ecological realities. In contrast to overwhelming evidence, the board stated that there is no emergency.

DFG’s action — or rather, the department’s shameful lack of action — is unconscionable. Environmental choices should be based on fact, as well as on fair evaluation of economic realities. Gold mining is a recreational activity. Many commercial fishermen, along with sellers of fishing equipment and others in a multi-million-dollar industry, deserve equal if not greater consideration. DFG has already admitted publicly that the regulatory status quo is harming fish like the coho salmon.

DFG officials have a responsibility to protect our state’s fishery resources, the livelihoods of our fishermen and women, and the supply of local seafood for our tables. And if they don’t fulfill that responsibility, the state legislature, along with other concerned individuals and organizations, must hold them accountable.

Accordingly, I have introduced legislation to ban suction-dredge mining in California. While some miners will denounce a ban as infringing upon their “freedom,” no human beings should be “free” to hasten the elimination of these magnificent fish. And millions of other Californians — including fishing families, recreational fishermen and salmon consumers — have an interest to protect, too.

We are, hopefully, at a turning point on the path of survival for California’s salmon. There is an agreement in principle to remove dams on the Klamath River. There is reconsideration of delta pumping and water management. There are broad efforts to bring back the coho, with many people gritting their teeth to cooperate with a broad range of restrictions, starting with fishermen.

It is time for miners to give up their self-interest, to give these fish a moment to recover. And it’s high time for the DFG to go from protecting miners to protecting fish — for all Californians.

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