San Francisco Community Fishing Association
Sixty years ago, when state and federal agencies built the dams that dewatered the second largest river in California, it might have seemed like a good idea. Now we know better. It was a disaster for salmon and salmon fishermen. Nearly 95 percent of San Joaquin’s flow was diverted. Sixty miles of river ran dry and the salmon – one of California’s most productive runs – was wiped out.
Since then, salmon fishermen have nearly been wiped out as well.
We’ve lost 90 percent of the fleet because of excessive water diversions and poor water management policies that continually put salmon last despite clear scientific evidence and laws that should have supported our fisheries. It is time get back to a sense of balance. We have that chance now because of the San Joaquin River Restoration Agreement. We just need our fish agencies to get off the dime and reintroduce our spring and fall runs like they promised.
It has been more than six years since we won the eighteen-year court battle over the dewatering of the San Joaquin River. The court sided with us – salmon fishermen and our allies, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations – and ruled that the fish and salmon management agencies need to restore and maintain fish populations in good condition in the main stem of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River, including naturally-reproducing and self-sustaining populations of salmon and other fish.
Chinook Salmon spawning, Photo Credit: Zureks
The resulting San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Agreement (SJRRSA) called for an extensive multi-agency effort to put enough water back in the river to support fall and spring Chinook salmon runs. These agencies, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the California Department of Water Resources, all committed to a salmon reintroduction that was supposed to begin by 2012.
It has been six years since this decision. Six years is more than a reasonable amount of time to study, make initial improvements, get permits, and create a reintroduction plan for a river that used to be the life and blood of Central Valley salmon. For them not to have used those years to compete the necessary steps is a fundamental, unacceptable outcome.
But it gets worse. Last summer, all the necessary permits to reintroduce the spring-run Chinook were in place. Then, out of nowhere, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced they weren’t even within six months of where they should have been, but needed an additional year and a half.
Clearly there are communication and coordination problems among the implementing agencies. Clearly reintroduction of salmon has not been a priority. But we cannot wait any longer. We need our San Joaquin River salmon.
Please do not misunderstand – the San Joaquin River Restoration Program is not a failure. It is not coming apart. In fact, the responsible agencies have made great accomplishments in terms of water supply projects and flood protections. The failure lies in that they are seemingly unable to organize themselves to take necessary steps to make the right levels of improvements to reintroduce salmon. They are failing in their commitments to the fishermen. Now we need fishermen to help make clear that failing is not acceptable.
The fish belong in that river. What happened to that river is a crime against nature.
Now we need to get on with the business of restoring the runs. The agencies all agreed to the terms of the SJRRSA and of the reintroduction of salmon. It is not just the moral thing to do – salmon belong in rivers with water – it is their legal obligation both under the restoration agreement and the Public Trust Doctrine.
The Public Trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources belong to all, and cannot be privately owned or controlled because of their inherent importance to each individual and society as a whole. This means the San Joaquin River, its water, and its salmon, all belong to us: the people of California. A clear declaration of public ownership, the doctrine means that public rights are superior over private rights for critical resources, like water. It gives the state of California the affirmative duties of the trustee to manage our natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations. The doctrine embodies key principles of environmental protection, stewardship, communal responsibility, and sustainability.
We, the people of California, have a right to have clean water in the San Joaquin River, and healthy enough habitat to support runs of Chinook salmon. It is also the right of Californians to get to eat our salmon. Chinook, or king, salmon is the best food California produces. It is the food of the gods. All we need to do is keep our rivers healthy and get out of the way; the fish do the rest.
Larry Collins fished commercially for salmon and Dungeness crab for 30 years before he helped start the San Francisco Community Fishing Association. He is PCFFA Vice-President, President of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, and as a vocal advocate for maintaining our Public Trust fisheries resources is regularly sought after for his opinions on Bay Area fisheries issues.