Saving Salmon

March 2008

chinook salmon

As Rep. Mike Thompson put it, “The numbers are staggering.”

In 2002, 800,000 wild chinook salmon returned to the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

In 2006, the number was down to 277,000, triggering the most restrictive salmon fishing season on record for Oregon and California. The commercial catch ended up being 12 percent of normal that year.

But those numbers pale in comparison to what is happening this year.

Only about 90,000 adult spawning salmon returned to the Sacramento River area last fall. It’s the secondlowest number on record and well below the government’s

worst projections. As a result, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is on the verge of canceling the salmon season entirely this year. A final decision will come next month.

If the council does so, it would be a significant blow to the commercial fishing industry as well as charter boat skippers and others who benefit from or make their living off sport fishing.

Last year, Thompson, D-St. Helena, led the way in securing $60.4 million in relief for salmon fishermen as a way to cushion the blow from the shortened 2006 season. But that came only after a prolonged battle in Washington, D.C. and extensive delays.

Given the extent of the problem this year and the shortage of federal funds, “It’s going to be harder this time” to secure relief, Thompson told The Press Democrat

Editorial Board Monday. Fortunately, Thompson has a number of allies working with him and they are off to a good start.

A major obstacle in helping fishing families is that Congress is prohibited from authorizing disaster funds until the secretary of commerce officially declares the season a failure. This year, Thompson, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and 40 other West Coast representatives are urging the commerce secretary not to wait to the last minute to start the process.

It makes sense. Whether the drop in salmon populations is the result of climate change, delta water diversions, poor logging practices, over-fishing or some combination of all the above, this much we know is true. The fishing season this year will be a disaster.