No Water, No Fish, No Jobs

Mark Mlcoch
The Redding Record Searchlight
May 24, 2010

I grew up in Redding. As any Californian who has ever picked up a fishing rod knows, the region around this small north state city supports some of the best angling in the state. Lake Shasta and Whiskeytown Reservoir are literally in our backyard. The Trinity River, home to fine steelhead fishing, is an hour’s drive to the west. The Upper Sacramento River, Trinity Lake, the small, alpine lakes of the Trinity Alps Wilderness, Lake Shastina, Lake Almanor, the Pit River, the McCloud River and Hat Creek are all nearby, and all afford spectacular trout fishing.

But it is the Lower Sacramento River — the portion that begins just north of Redding, below Keswick Dam — that historically has been the biggest draw for sport anglers. For one thing, this section supports a lunker native rainbow trout fishery. Drift boaters come from around the West to float the 30-mile stretch between Redding and Red Bluff, hoping — and usually succeeding — to tie into some of our football-size ‘bows.

More to the point, the “Lower Sac” has long been sacred water to salmon fishermen. In 2008 and 2009, California’s salmon season was closed entirely due to low numbers of fish. This year, we’re having a very limited season — salmon numbers have bumped up a little, but not enough to warrant any celebration. Not so long ago, however, hundreds of thousands of big, beautiful, fall-run chinook salmon ran up this river to spawn. There were plenty of fish to sustain the runs, with plenty left over to catch. Each year, the anglers would be there in the thousands to greet the homecoming salmon.

I was one of that crowd, both as a fishermen and a professional guide. I’ve always loved fishing for salmon — but more than that, as a guide, the salmon put (so to speak) meat and potatoes on my table. The salmon fishery on the Lower Sac was a recreational fishery, but it wasn’t just about recreation: It was about jobs. And jobs are a deadly serious issue in the north state.

High unemployment is a relatively recent development in the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California, but it has been a concern with us for decades. The recreational salmon industry was big business in this area. Further, it was reliable, sustainable business. As long as the fish got what they needed — mainly adequate downstream flows — they returned, giving us what we needed: income. A 1992 University of California at Davis study concluded that each salmon caught in the sport fishery was worth $900 to $1,200 to the local economy. So when I boated a client’s salmon, I wasn’t the only one getting paid. The motel owners, the restaurateurs, the waiters and cooks who worked in those restaurants, the gas station owners — everybody got a cut

And that’s just direct expenditures from the clients. The guides who fish this river also put a lot of money into the local economy. I run a $50,000 jet boat. Local mechanics work on that boat. I buy my fuel and tackle locally — and when the salmon are running, believe me, I buy a lot of fuel and tackle. So we can’t just view our salmon as noble, attractive, hard-fighting fish that happen to be incredibly delicious — certainly, they’re all those things. But they’re also something more than all that: They’re revenue multipliers. They generate wealth. Each fish represents life for Redding and all the other towns along the river.

When we had full salmon seasons, some full-time guides made $70,000 to $80,000 a year — very good money for this part of the state.

Guiding supported my family, and helped support the community. But now, more than 90 percent of my guide business has vanished — gone with the salmon closures. And it’s not just a matter of losing my salmon trips. Guiding is synergistic — I booked many of my trout trips while salmon fishing. The clients would get so excited after hooking into a few big fall-run chinook that they’d want to come back and try for our monster trout. If you don’t have that ongoing face-to-face interaction with your clients, if you don’t constantly cultivate and follow up contacts, if you don’t get that word-of-mouth buzz going, you’re not going to make it as a fishing guide. A fishing closure is like a monkey wrench thrown into a jet engine — everything stops, and it can be impossible to get things going again. It took me 20 years to build up my client base. Even if we eventually go back to full salmon seasons, it’s going to take me a long time to get back to where I was.

What am I doing today? Like everybody else in this area, whatever it takes to survive: construction, remodeling, anything. My income, obviously, has fallen dramatically. These are tough times on the river — both for the fish and the fishing industry.

Somehow, this debate over water has become characterized as a matter of “fish versus jobs.” The argument is that we can have salmon or we can have farming in the Central Valley, but we can’t have both. I think this is ridiculous. We can have both a healthy salmon fishery and a vigorous agricultural sector — we just have to allocate the water fairly and rationally. We need to change the way water is delivered, we need more habitat restoration, and we need to emphasize crops and technologies that conserve water.

We also need to adjust water deliveries to accommodate the basic biological requirements of the fish. Spawning salmon need cold water in the river to successfully reproduce, and the young fish need adequate flows to ensure their successful migration to the sea. These baseline conditions must be met if we want to save our salmon and the jobs they generate. Unlike human beings, salmon are unable to compromise or to adjust: they simply need what they need. And what they need isn’t all that much — we can conserve them without disrupting, or even adversely affecting, state agriculture. Recent agreements on the Klamath River and the San Joaquin River have resulted in true “win-win” situations that accommodate both fisheries and farmers. We can do the same for the Sacramento River and the Delta.

For my business, the bottom line is this: If we take care of the salmon, they’ll take care of us. Let’s quit all this bickering and get on with it.

Mark Mlcoch is president of the Northern California Guides Association.