Sometime during the first week of April, regulators will decide whether to close a 700-mile stretch of the California and Oregon coasts to commercial salmon fishing, and much of the West Coast will learn whether locally caught king salmon will show up at fish markets this summer.
At first blush, it seems like a case of short-run consumption versus far-sighted conservation. But it's not that simple. It's a tale of the tangles that snarl the West when our appetites grow so big that there isn't enough to go around.
King salmon — also known as chinook — were hammered by twin catastrophes on the Klamath River in 2002-‘03, when most of this year's catch would have hatched. Tens of thousands died in the fetid lower river on their way to reproduce. Then the progeny of the surviving spawners emerged into a river swarming with parasites, dooming the vast majority of fingerlings.
As a result, even without any fishing, just 29,000 Klamath chinook are expected to reach their spawning grounds this year — below the minimum level needed to sustain the run, according to biologists. The anticipated fish number is just a few percent of the hordes that used to throng the river, originally the third-mightiest salmon producer in the Lower 48.
The proposal to take a break from fishing this year might be an open-and-shut case if Klamath chinook were the only fish affected. But the region's commercial salmon fishing occurs at sea, where Klamath fish mingle with much more numerous runs from other rivers. The Sacramento alone is expected to yield several hundred thousand catchable kings this year.
This system of ocean fishing, known as trolling, worked fine when all rivers produced relatively strong runs. Now, fishermen are held hostage to the weakest of them. This year, that's the Klamath.
Projections from the Pacific Fishery Management Council suggest that keeping the fishermen at their docks would save about 5,000 Klamath chinook, while letting nearly a quarter-million other kings off the hook.
As fishermen see it, that's a lot of fish to forgo just to let a few thousand more spawners take their chances in an inhospitable Klamath. Without efforts to address the root causes of the fishery's decline, says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Federation of Fishermen's Association, "putting fish back into a river that’s killing them makes as much sense as tossing virgins into a volcano."
Behind the 2002-‘03 fish kills lies a river that is worked to the bone. Its upstream waters are captured to irrigate fields of hay, potatoes and barley near the California-Oregon border; several aging hydroelectric dams stopper its main stem; and its largest tributary is tapped for agribusiness hundreds of miles to the south, in California's Central Valley. With the Klamath's life-giving flow sidetracked, river conditions leave the salmon susceptible to infections like the ones that overtook them three years ago.
Unfortunately, the way the West is run, it's almost impossible to address those root causes comprehensively. The dams go up for relicensing before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Water diversions are the province of the Bureau of Reclamation and private irrigation districts. Fishing seasons are set by the Department of Commerce.
Apart from the difficulty of coordinating those agencies' efforts, any federal action these days is colored by the calculus of what seems like a perpetual campaign. As the Wall Street Journal uncovered in 2003, the decision to allow upstream farmers to irrigate full-bore in 2002 — which precipitated subsequent salmon die-offs — revolved around a photo of Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon opening the irrigation headgates as part of his re-election drive.
The effects may reverberate much longer than Smith’s senate term. Fishermen worry that missing an entire season will cripple their industry. The salmon fleet in California and Oregon has dropped to less than a third of its 1990 numbers, at about 1,500 boats. By the time the salmon regain their strength, fishermen warn, condos and arcades are apt to have displaced their harbors' ice houses and fuel docks. At that point, the West Coast's fishing towns would become one more example of Old West resource-industry facades hiding New West gentrification within their hollow shells.
The saddest part of that scenario is that mining towns have inherently limited lifetimes, since they are based on finite deposits of minerals. But if we would take good care of salmon and their rivers, the story on the coast wouldn't have to end that way.