CLOSE TO HOME: Here are the keys to saving threatened North Coast salmon


Published: Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 5:06 p.m. Last Modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 5:06 p.m.

They’re iconic images of Pacific Coast life: great red salmon jumping against the current on their spawning run. Fishing boats returning to Bodega Bay with their daily catch. But Pacific Coho and steelhead salmon populations have been dwindling and as a species they are threatened.

Last year, salmon fishing, both commercial and recreational, was banned for the first time all along the West Coast. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency last year and sent a letter to President George W. Bush requesting federal relief. A similar fishing ban is likely this year. With the loss of the salmon also go thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in income.

Salmon are bellwethers of the health of our waterways. Proper water quality and temperature are essential if they are to survive and thrive. The salmon decline is due to multiple impacts on our forests and our water quality: dams preventing fish migration; excessive logging and intensive agriculture cause sedimentation and habitat loss; poorly planned urban growth alters watersheds; water diversion (sometimes illegal) along with excessive and ill-timed seasonal water releases produce insufficient water flows; chemically contaminated and warmed water intrusion damages native spawning sites.

Habitat protection starts right in our own back yard, where timber harvest proposals promise further loss of fish and where our state water watchdogs have been too slow in enforcing standards protecting our streams from polluted discharge. Threats to salmon habitat continue to abound: the Bohemian Club has submitted a logging plan impacting spotted owl and fish habitat that would allow high-volume removal of large and old-growth trees from their grove, Sonoma County’s finest privately owned old-growth stand; Preservation Ranch is a proposal to convert 1,700 acres of coastal forest into vineyards in the Gualala watershed; Sheephouse Creek, a salmon spawning stream near Jenner is the subject of another logging plan.

So what are the current efforts to rescue the salmon and our rivers? As The Press Democrat reported, state Sen. Pat Wiggins is now sponsoring legislation aimed at salmon restoration. At the same time, a coalition of 75 concerned environmental, sporting and commercial fishing groups, including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Sierra Club, has sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that he appoint a protector for salmon restoration to the White House Council for Environmental Quality. According to their letter, the coordinator would “develop realistic, workable action plans that protect water quality and provide habitat for endangered salmon that need cool, clean water to survive.”

A coalition of conservation and fishermen’s groups is also now challenging the failure by the state and regional water boards to implement the clean water laws that protect wild rivers and streams in California’s North Coast region. That coalition has filed a lawsuit to urge the agencies to adopt clean-up plans required by state law that will meet pollution limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These limits govern the total maximum daily load (TMDL) of contaminants that may be released into our watersheds. Daniel Myers of the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter points out that the regional board has “lost 60 staff members since 2001, leaving the agency unable to protect our wild rivers,” and that “neither the regional board nor the state board have taken meaningful measures to acquire the staff and resources that are needed for the TMDL program to succeed.”

Please consider: Nature doesn’t grant bailouts or do-overs. It is high time to seriously address water pollution in our North Coast watersheds.

Jay Halcomb is regional chairman of the Sierra Club Sonoma Group. Dan Kerbein is the a member of the Sierra Club Sonoma Group executive committee.