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Spring is a remarkable time of year, arguably the most anticipated season of them all. Depending on where you live, iconic harbingers of the season may include daffodils, cherry blossoms, asparagus, or the call of robins. In central California we have the mighty King Salmon as our messenger of spring. In most years, April and May see recreational and commercial fishermen alike flock to their nearest boat launch.
This year is different. After several years of drought and compounding environmental forces, the fishery has been shut down altogether. The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), one of 8 regional fishery management councils established by Congress, manages the hundreds of West Coast fisheries and made its final decision to close the 2023 King Salmon fishery last month. The industry was aligned with many of them making a public request to shut down the fishery ahead of the PFMC decision after hearing the salmon return counts on the Klamath and Sacramento rivers. Our founder, Alan Lovewell, sits on the Ecosystems Advisory Subcouncil to the PFMC, and was at the meeting during these discussions. The call to action was clear.
Despite the bad news, there are some promising solutions, both new and established, and perhaps some silver linings as well.
For addressing salmon recruitment or spawning, there is a hundreds of million dollar industry built around hatchery programs that not only tie into the existing rivers but also, increasingly transport young salmon to various waterways to increase their chances of survival. Though funding and support for these programs has been controversial, it is a solution most widely supported by commercial and recreational salmon to maintain their industries. We think of our "wild" king salmon as purely wild, in fact a large percentage of them originate from hatcheries and trace the start of their life cycles to plastic or fiberglass basins. The hatcheries' role in the equation for solutions is clear - do what nature is not currently able to do on its own. However the controversy lies at the confluence of short-term and long-term solutions. On one hand we need more salmon, and hatcheries do a great job at pumping them into our oceans, on the other hand they are quick and expensive solutions that do not address the root threats to wild salmon recovery and success.
Disaster Relief Funding
Another short-term solution for industry and fishing communities is Federal disaster relief funding. The loss of income for fishermen and seafood businesses is significant. This is not the first time the salmon fishery has been closed. In 2008 the fishery was closed for two years and the State and region declared it a disaster which qualified the fishermen and industry to federal relief funding to endure those difficult years and offset the economic hardships. $170 million was approved for the California, Oregon, and Washington back in 2008. We will see what is allocated this year.
Dam Removal Projects
The last solution is the only implemented solution that helps wild salmon populations recover – dam removal. Shortly after news around the impending salmon closure this year, an article came out announcing the removal of the four dams along the Klamath river. Removing these dams restores one of the largest rivers on the West Coast to its natural state. It is the largest dam removal project in US history. We've known for a long time how detrimental these dams have been to the native salmon population. Dam removal and restoring natural habitat is one of the most impactful solutions we can implement to restore our native wild salmon populations. The Klamath's return to nature is a massive milestone for salmon and salmon lovers.
Another solution that is controversial and currently off the table, though should be more strongly considered, is reducing the amount of water being diverted to agriculture and drier portions of the state. This PBS documentary, Rivers End, does an incredible job at articulating the real challenge and global implications of this crisis. That said, the widely accepted truth is that political interests and supporting industries are so large that diverting more water back to natural waterways is not even a political consideration, in fact the motivations are in favor of securing MORE water. After watching the documentary you can fully understand the scope of the issue.
It seems like our King Salmon are really a "canary in the coal mine" sending an early warning about the challenges and risks poised at the intersection of climate change, fresh water scarcity, and a growing global population. Or in this case, the "salmon in the Sacramento," expanding the idiom and making it relevant to our local and global circumstances. However, we appreciate this moment for what it can inspire and teach us, since it's when our most beloved resources become unavailable do we start to notice and pay attention. Our hope is just that and we look forward to this opportunity to get our community excited about the abundance of other species and fishermen stories.
Sometimes setbacks can move us forward.