Fishermen Fear Delta Pump Ruling May Decimate Fall Salmon Run

Zeke Grader,
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations
May 27, 2010

Fall-Run Chinook Are the Mainstay of California’s Salmon Fishery Fishing families and communities along a thousand miles of coast hard hit by the closure of the West Coast salmon fishery fear that Judge Wanger’s decision to allow increased pumping out of the imperiled California Delta could be disastrous for Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon.

Chinook Salman

West Coast fishermen, shut out of fishing for the past two years altogether and granted a 2010 commercial fishery so tiny that most will simply sit it out, fear that a Tuesday night ruling by Fresno-based judge Oliver Wanger could be a serious disaster for the Sacramento River’s fall-run chinook (‘king’) salmon resource.

Sacramento River fall run chinook are the backbone of California’s 150-year-old salmon fishery and a large contributor to Oregon and Washington ocean fisheries as well. Strong runs of Sacramento River fall-run chinooks returned to the Central Valley earlier in this decade – 768,000 adult fish up to 50 pounds each found their way back to Valley streams in 2002.

By 2009 that number had crashed to 39,530 fish, driven down in large part by heavy increases in State Water Project pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

While the Sacramento River’s spring-run chinook juvenile fish have nearly finished their migration through the Delta, the fall-run salmon and endangered species act-listed steelhead will be migrating downstream through most of June, as will those hatchery salmon released upstream.

The California Department of Water Resources is already ramping up its Delta pumping, taking quick advantage of Wanger’s ruling, from 1,500 cubic feet per second to nearly 6,000 cubic feet per second.

Dick Pool, a Bay Area sportfishing advocate and the administrator of, is concerned that this high level of pumping from the Delta will not only suck baby salmon into the pumps, but will trap thousands of others trying to reach San Francisco Bay in the central Delta where their chances of survival are slim.

“There is no cover, little food and there are many predators in the central Delta channels,” said Pool. “Studies show that most young salmon never make it to the pumping plant. Most of them fall to predators or perish before they make it to the State Water Project pumps.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, Wanger is only required to consider the impacts of increased pumping on the critically low winter- and spring-run chinook salmon and steelhead, a close chinook salmon relative.

Fishing families and communities along a thousand miles of coast have been hard hit by the closure of the West Coast salmon fishery. “Salmon were about 60% of my income,” said Larry Collins, a San Francisco-based fisherman.

Collins has also seen a dramatic decline in fish in San Francisco Bay. “The herring fishery collapsed, and everything else is way down – likely due to the over-pumping in the Delta,” he stated.

The collapse of the salmon runs and the declining health of the Bay fisheries impacts everyone from fish brokers to Bay Area restaurants unable to serve local salmon to residents and tourists. Total ocean salmon fishing closures resulting from past problems in the Sacramento-Bay Delta in 2008 and 2009 shut down ocean salmon fishing all the way up to nearly the Oregon-Washington Border.

More than 50% of the salmon harvested commercial in Oregon typically come from the California Central Valley. Even ocean commercial fishing in Washington can be curtailed when California Central Valley stocks are too weak to allow any fishing impacts, as they were in 2008 and 2009.

One 2009 study indicated that California’s salmon fishing shutdown has cost the region 23,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in annual income. The study found that full recovery of just California’s salmon fisheries would create 94,000 new jobs and provide $5.6 billion annual economic gain.