Reinvesting in California’s Salmon and Steelhead

Michael Martin with a nice Merced River Trout, courtesy Michael Martin (Merced River Conservation Committee)

by Chandra Ferrari, TU California Water Policy Director

Remember the great crash of 2007/2008?  No, not the financial disaster that wiped out 401(k) accounts and housing equity in record time.  I’m talking about the collapse of the California Central Valley salmon population that was so severe it necessitated a complete closure of the salmon fishery in 2008 and 2009 and shortened fishing seasons in 2010 and 2011.  (See A Recipe for Wild Salmon, July 2, 2008.)  Much like the financial crisis, the salmon crisis was caused, in part, by risky bets and unsound investment strategies.

California bet that healthy salmon and steelhead populations could persist while water exports skyrocketed, habitats fell to pieces, and water quality suffered.  While doing so, the cardinal rule of investing was violated: don’t put all your eggs in one basket (diversify!).  California opted to invest heavily in a fishery management strategy that favored certain populations over others and relied on speculative measures based primarily on lessening costs to water users. This strategy resulted in a genetically homogenous Central Valley salmon population that is ill equipped to handle the numerous roadblocks that society (and nature) put in its way.  As a result, the Central Valley salmon and steelhead populations continue to decline and they currently fall far short of historical numbers.

So why I am forcing you to relive painful memories?  Because we have a big opportunity to reverse the salmon and steelhead decline and avert future large-scale crises -- but it requires a little upfront investment.  There is a proceeding underway before the State Water Resources Control Board that will affect how much flow is required to remain in the lower Tuolumne, Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers to benefit salmon, steelhead and other aquatic resources.  This is a big deal because the current amount of flow in these rivers is grossly inadequate to protect aquatic resources; in a typical year less than a third of the water flowing in the San Joaquin River watershed makes it downstream to the Bay-Delta estuary.  Currently, the Board is hearing from those that want to preserve the status quo.  The Board now needs to hear from you.

Tuolumne River Salmon, courtesy Cindy Charles (Golden West Women Flyfishers and FFF)

If you fish for rainbow trout or steelhead in the Tuolumne, Merced or Stanislaus Rivers I don’t have to tell you why it matters.  On a good day, they offer fishing as good as anything in the state.  But even if you haven’t cast your fly in the San Joaquin watershed, we can’t afford to sit this one out.  This is only the first step of a multi-phase process that will ultimately determine flow objectives for the entire San Joaquin/Sacramento watershed.  The size of the watershed is impressive, extending nearly 500 miles from northwest to southeast and ranging from 60 to 100 miles wide.  The watershed captures more than half of California's surface water.  Given the extensive scope of this process, its outcome will help determine whether or not California’s salmon and steelhead populations have suitable conditions to spawn, rear, forage and migrate.  It will determine whether salmon and steelhead stocks continue to decline, or whether our children have a chance to fish the way our parents did.   It will affect almost all California fishermen, both recreational and commercial, whether they use a spinner or fly rod or troller to catch fish.

Unfortunately, the Board is considering a proposal for the San Joaquin watershed that will do little to improve the unsustainable status quo.  Specifically, the Board is considering setting San Joaquin inflows at 35% of unimpaired flow, a mere two percent increase from the 33% that occurs in a typical year.  Such a tepid response is simply not enough to prevent the continued decline of the fishery resources in the watershed. The future of California’s salmon and steelhead populations remain extremely precarious. The crash of 2007/2008 was abated thanks only to a combination of favorable hydrology, good ocean conditions and court-ordered restrictions on water diversions.  However, our current solution can be likened to a band aid that is likely to fall off at any moment.  Nothing has been done to permanently address the underlying causes of the fishery decline.

Lower Tuolumne River, courtesy Cindy Charles (Golden West Women Flyfishers and FFF)

The good news is that permanently declining salmon and steelhead stocks does not have to be the normal.  Fishermen have an opportunity to change the trajectory the Board is taking and push it toward strategies that will actually work.  The most obvious being that fish need more water and they need it now.  This isn’t speculation, this is science.  It is well documented that aquatic species favorably respond to enhanced freshwater flow conditions.  It is clear that the Board’s proposal is not good enough to reverse the decline of salmon and steelhead, not even close.  California’s recreational and commercial fishermen are the perfect messengers to make this point.  For too long our fishery resources have been the victims of risky management strategies that benefit the few.  Those left holding the bag when the strategies fail are the resources and those that rely on them for recreational, commercial and aesthetic purposes.

I am usually not a betting woman.  However, just this once, I am willing to bet that if we all collectively invest a little time advocating for sound fishery management strategies, it will generate big future returns. . . of salmon and steelhead.

Tell us what you think, and contact me if you want to get involved. Share the article, and if you fish the Merced, Tuolumne, Stanislaus or Delta please tell us about it and share some pictures if you can!  I can be reached at: (916) 214-9731, or by email:

Please TAKE ACTION NOW:  Follow this link and send a note to the State Water Board asking them to improve fishing and river flows for the San Joaquin Valley.  TAKE ACTION TODAY. Thanks.