Expert Sends Out SOS for California’s Fish

Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times

Salmon in trouble

Two-thirds of California’s native salmon, trout and steelhead are headed for extinction unless major changes are made to the way the state’s rivers are managed and protected, according to a report by one of the state’s top fish experts. “We have long records of decline and things are getting worse,” said Peter Moyle, a UC Davis biologist who wrote the report and is widely considered a top authority on California’s native fish. Of the 32 varieties of salmon, trout and steelhead in California, bull trout is already extinct. Of the rest, all but two are either protected under endangered species laws or designated for special consideration because they might require such protection. Moyle found that 20 of those salmon, steelhead and trout species could be extinct within 100 years but many are likely to be gone much sooner, Moyle said. “I was trying not to be too alarmist,” he said.

The causes of decline are numerous, including dams that block fish from spawning habitat, logging of redwood forests, water diversions, decreased water quality and siltation. Hatcheries are another leading cause, because breeding between wild fish and those raised in hatcheries has led to more homogenized populations. Salmon now tend to migrate more at the same time, Moyle said, and that leaves more fish vulnerable if there’s a pollution discharge that occurs as the fish pass through a river, for example. “It’s death by a thousand cuts syndrome,” Moyle said.

The report “SOS: California’s Native Fish Crisis” took two years to complete and grew out of conversations about how no one had taken a comprehensive look at the status of those fish. It was commissioned by California Trout, a recreation and environmental advocacy group. “I was surprised that nobody has done an overview of what’s happening to California trout and salmon. Nobody was looking at the big picture,” Moyle said.

In some ways, the report’s findings are not all that surprising. Last year, the most valuable of the state’s salmon runs — the Central Valley fall run chinook — collapsed so dramatically that regulators took the unprecedented step of closing a commercial fishery that up until recently was worth $100 million a year. Still, Moyle said the breadth of the problem was escaping notice because biologists all were focused on problems with the particular species and rivers in which they were interested. “You always had the feeling that somewhere there were good populations,” Moyle said. “Things were much worse off collectively than I thought they were.”

The most likely of the fish to go extinct within the next 50 years are chum salmon and pink salmon — which have never been common in California — and Central California coast coho salmon, which range from the Humboldt County coast to Santa Cruz. Those coho salmon have fallen victim to logging dating to the 19th century, water diversion and dams, all of which have damaged the creeks where the coho once thrived. “With the possible exception of the small population in the Lagunitas Creek watershed (in Marin County), Central California coast coho are on the verge of extinction,” the report says.

One of the least likely fish to go extinct is the Central Valley fall run chinook, which had been considered the backbone of the West Coast salmon fishery until it was closed this year. Enough fall run chinook remain to guard against extinction, but the return of a healthy salmon fishery is in doubt.

The report recommends major reform of the California Department of Fish and Game, a state agency responsible for regulating fisheries and enforcing the state’s endangered species laws. “This decline happened on their watch,” Moyle said. “They are an agency that has been underfunded and has never had strong leadership from the governor on down.” A call seeking a comment from the Fish and Game Department was not returned.