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Sacramento salmon run dry

California shoppers won't be getting any local salmon this year, but the bigger issue is whether local salmon will ever be available again. The fall run of Chinook salmon on the Sacramento River is one of the three most important salmon runs on the West Coast, along with runs on the Klamath and Columbia rivers farther north. Following what has been described as an unprecedented collapse of the Sacramento River fall Chinook salmon run, which declined from a high of 800,000 fish in 2002 and 280,000 last year to a mere 90,000 this year, observers expect harsh restrictions on both sport and commercial fishing this year, and perhaps an outright ban.

"For a combination of reasons relating to habitat destruction in all three rivers, we're now at a place where every year there are lower salmon returns," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a national coalition of conservation groups and fishing associations. "The question is whether the returns are abysmally low, like this year, or merely low."

Though salmon runs often fluctuate based on ocean conditions, this is the first time in 15 years that the Sacramento River run failed to meet its adult spawning escapement goal of 122,000 to 180,000 fish. This conservation goal is considered the optimum number for ensuring the survival of the run. Even more alarming, only 2,000 jacks, or two-year-old males, were counted, compared to 40,000 in a normal year. Jacks are considered predictors of the coming year's return.

The shrinking Chinook run impacts both economics and the environment. Because salmon from all three major west coast runs mix together at sea before returning to their individual rivers to spawn, the decline in Sacramento River salmon may also cause commercial fishing restrictions or closures in Oregon and Washington.

"Fishing will be constrained even if the other runs are healthy," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, based in San Francisco. "For commercial and sport fisheries, this will be at best a nominal season, with limited fishing done in concert with research on genetic stock identification. As far as wild salmon production, we'll be depending on Alaska."

In the minds of both fishermen and conservationists, the larger issue is what factors are having the greatest impact on the health of salmon populations. In addition to normal variations in ocean conditions, which can have a significant impact on salmon numbers, there are human factors. These include both local land use and habitat destruction issues and, according to some experts, nonlocal issues related to global warming and changing ocean environments.

"The three main components of habitat destruction are dams, human development and water changes or withdrawals, including pollution, and they all intersect in various ways," said Ford. "On the Sacramento, dams are a problem, but human development is at least equal to it, because it's such a populated watershed."

Ocean conditions vary according to latitude, said Ford. In one year lower latitudes may harbor excellent conditions for ocean salmon, with upwellings of cold water from the ocean floor carrying bountiful krill, the salmon's main food source, and in other years conditions may be more positive at higher latitudes, favoring salmon from the Columbia and Klamath rivers.

The final decisions on fishing and salmon protection are made by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but some observers argue that federal agencies are focused on the wrong causes for the declines. "This year, the agencies began getting the [low] numbers and saying, 'Oh my God, it's climate change; something mysterious is going on in the ocean,'" said Grader.

In fact, Grader says, positive ocean conditions the past few years have masked problems with river habitat, especially the pumping of water from the Sacramento River delta to slake southern California's insatiable thirst. "We're saying pay attention to global warming, but not let it become an excuse for these agencies. There's been a basic refusal to look at how to get more water into this system, so it's flowing west, not south," Grader said.—He believes the state of California needs to provide fresh water inflow that was ordered 20 years ago—but hasn't been initiated due to legal wrangling among several interested parties—and severely curtail the 1.6 million acre-feet or more of water currently pumped out of the delta.

Agricultural pollutants can also critically impact salmon health. "The state needs to eliminate the waivers they've granted for toxic discharges into the delta, specifically for selenium coming from the San Joachim valley," Grader said. In the meantime, fishermen from San Francisco to Seattle are wondering whether to take their boats north to Alaska, where rising fuel costs mean there's no guarantee of breaking even. "It's going to be a killer," Grader said of the upcoming salmon season—with little prospect for improvement in coming years if the underlying causes aren't addressed.

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