Charting a Course for Salmon Recovery

Robust annual salmon migrations have long been a sign of a healthy Pacific ecosystem. Today, sadly, wild salmon and steelhead populations in California are threatened with extinction. The OPC is currently exploring how to fill critical policy and funding gaps to help protect this iconic species for centuries to come.thomas.dunklin

During the mid 19th century, the large numbers of salmon returning to their spawning grounds was so legendary that gold miners wrote letters home about ‘walking across the backs of salmon’ to traverse rivers. But this is no longer the case. The West Coast commercial salmon fishery was closed in 2008 and again in 2009 due to record low returns of the fall run Chinook salmon to the Sacramento River. Scientists have stated that approximately 60,000 Chinook salmon reached the Sacramento area to spawn this year compared with 800,000 in 2002.

The reasons for the collapse of the salmon stocks are varied and not without a high level of controversy. The main factors for the rapid decline in salmon populations include: barriers to fish passage (e.g., dams, roads and water diversions), water pollution, historic over fishing, varied ocean conditions, invasive species, climate change, and habitat destruction (e.g., logging and development). These cumulative impacts have led to a substantial loss of salmon stocks throughout the West Coast over the past 150 years.

The OPC supports a variety of projects and studies to elucidate what actions it and other state agencies should take to develop more robust policies that protect and safeguard the last remaining wild stocks of salmonids in California. In particular, the OPC is currently funding three instream flow studies in coordination with the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to develop minimum flow requirements needed to maintain critical habitat for salmonids living in the Shasta, Big Sur, and Santa Maria rivers. This information will be provided to the State Water Resource Control Board, along with necessary background information, to develop flow recommendations for each of these rivers.

The OPC is also working with Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR) on the Southern Steelhead Resources Project to prioritize watersheds for restoration projects south of the Golden Gate Bridge that have the greatest potential to restore native populations of steelhead. The results are intended to guide decision making by agencies, local jurisdictions, watershed groups, funders, and others by establishing a set of short-term restoration activities intended to conserve the greatest amount of existing steelhead habitat in the most efficient manner. In a related effort, Ecotrust has developed a report, that synthesizes current and historic salmon population statistics, discusses causes of decline in salmon abundance, and identifies key watersheds that are home to the last remaining wild salmon stocks in California. The report collects recommendations from numerous other reports and prioritizes them according to the top three contemporary factors of decline: land use, dams, and water diversion.

Salmon issues were also included as an OPC research priority for 2009, which led to the council’s decision to fund the research project “The Future of the California Salmon Fishery: Roles of Climate Variation, Habitat Restoration, Hatchery Practices, and Biocomplexity” as part of the Focused Research and Outreach Initiative. This study focuses on the impacts of climate variation, habitat restoration, and hatchery practices on the Klamath River and Central Valley salmon runs and will examine the oceanic component of the salmon life cycle. This research will result in a better understanding about which mitigation actions (such as hatchery practices, habitat restoration, control of freshwater flow rates) will have the greatest impact for stock recovery. The 14-person interdisciplinary team includes oceanographers, fishery stock assessment scientists, ecologists, geneticists, and economists and is lead by NOAA Fisheries.

Broadly, the OPC is working to promote increased coordination and data sharing among existing state and federal agencies working on salmonid issues. The OPC is interested in supporting key projects that help restore native populations of salmon across California and ensure that our restoration dollars are directed towards activities that will provide the greatest outcome in terms of protecting this valuable species.

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