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Take care of the fish and theyll take care of you. That simple truism may very well have been the guiding principle for Californias salmon fishermen fifty years ago this year when they formed an alliance with recreational fishermen, fish processors and fishery scientists committed to save that states magnificent salmon resource.
In 1956, under pressure from sport fishermen and in the face of dwindling Central Valley chinook stocks, the California Legislature acted to end the San Francisco Bay and Delta salmon net fishery. This fishery was the oldest non-tribal commercial fishery on the west coast; it had begun in the late 1840s to supply food to miners headed for the goldfields and by the 1850s was supplying canneries that had sprung up along the Sacramento River.
The fishery, which had suffered over the century from the ravages of hydraulic mining and the many small hydro dams that had sprung up along the Sacramento and San Joaquin tributaries with the electrification of the west, large and unscreened diversions being operated by private irrigation districts, as well as some bad fishing practices, was no match for the massive and impassable Central Valley Project dams Shasta and Friant placed on the mainstems of the two great rivers with the building of the wests largest reclamation project. The CVP dams were begun, as was the Grand Coulee and dams on the Columbia, during the Depression and were put into operation after World War II. By the mid-1950s they had begun taking their toll on the various runs of chinook the Central Valley rivers were famous for the winter and spring-runs, the fall and late-fall.
There was no Endangered Species Act then to save the San Joaquins large run of spring chinook that had largely supported the gillnet fleet in the Bay and Delta. The run that averaged 115,000 spawners annually was literally wiped out by Friant Dam. The structure was impassable and no provision was made for flow for fish below the dam, in violation of state statute. These were federal dams operated by the Bureau of Reclamation who contended their mandate preempted the California law.
The heroic efforts of California Fish & Game biologists in the late 1940s trying to save returning San Joaquin springers was to no avail. Then state Attorney General Pat Brown refused to challenge the feds on the flow issue. By the mid-1950s the spring-run had been extirpated from the mainstem San Joaquin, as were the other important salmon populations. Adding insult to this action, the Bureau refused to even build a hatchery to mitigate the losses. Finally, in 1987 a group of plaintiffs led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, including PCFFA, launched a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation to restore fish flows below Friant; that successful litigation reached a settlement in July 2006 to provide for flows from the dam for salmon.
To the north on the Sacramento, Shasta Dam blocked the migration of fish to its upper reaches and the Pitt and McCloud Rivers. It was on the McCloud where Livingston Stone built the first salmon hatchery in the west in the 1870s. Although the full impact of Shasta Dam operations would not be felt until the drought on 1976-77, its construction eliminated hundreds of miles of spawning habitat leaving the fish to make their redds in the waters below Keswick Dam (just downstream from Shasta).
A hatchery that had existed on Battle Creek, which joins the Sacramento below Shasta, was turned into the Coleman National Fish Hatchery to mitigate for the upstream losses. That hatchery, however, was a poor stepchild in Reclamations scheme. Its water source was inadequate, it was being charged full power rates by the Bureau and its budget was dumped into the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Services, thus having to compete for appropriations with all other service programs. Because of this Coleman in its early years was largely ineffectual in mitigating the fish losses from Shasta.
Sport fishing groups, witnessing declining stocks, did what is all too typical in fisheries, and instead of looking at habitat problems put the blame on commercial fishermen. In this instance it was the highly visible commercial net fishermen working the Bay and Delta. Either unaware of the impacts from the upstream dams or, most likely, not wanting to confront them, the Legislature ordered the commercial fishery closed. The only thing the fishermen got, thanks solely to the efforts of State Senator George Miller (father of California Congressman George Miller), whose fishermen were the victims of the legislative action, was a state-funded buyback of their vessels.
Concerned the ocean fisheries would be next, two responses came forward. The fish processors, which did have a lobby at the time -- the California Seafood Institute -- wanted to build a war chest, presumably controlled by them, to fight the sports fishermen. The other response came from some cooler heads in both the ocean commercial and recreational fisheries who realized they would all go under unless something was done to address the decline of the states salmon populations. Fortunately, it was that latter viewpoint that won out. Following the Legislative closing of the Bay-Delta salmon fishery in 1956, a fish processor and an outdoor sports writer brought together commercial and recreational fishermen, fish buyers and biologists and they established Salmon Unlimited that December, vowing together to rebuild Californias magnificent salmon resource together.
Fishermen in California, through Salmon Unlimited, were then in uncharted waters, working in a coalition with other fish interests to protect and rebuild fish stocks, not just catch them. Much of the early work was aimed at hatcheries, since the mindset of the day was that dams were inevitable, even good, and that artificial propagation was the way forward. Over time, the efforts of Salmon Unlimited and subsequent coalitions evolved from the hatchery/artificial propagation mindset to a more comprehensive look at maintaining salmon populations, moving away from utilization of non-native stocks, a focus on artificial methods, to restoring habitats and natural spawning-runs.
The problem was habitat and native fish stocks continued to be lost, and with the exception of the huge production of coho coming out of the federal supplementation hatcheries on the Columbia, most of the mitigation hatcheries, despite the best efforts of groups such as Salmon Unlimited, were not able to keep up with the losses. Further declines in the Central Valley ecosystem prompted the California Fish & Game Commission and the Department to propose in 1968 yet more curtailments on the ocean fishery.
That stocks were in decline in the Central Valley in 1968 should have come as little surprise, since four years earlier the Bureau had installed a diversion dam at Red Bluff on the Sacramento River. The Red Bluff Diversion Dam did allow fish passage, but created a killing zone at its base for downstream migrating smolts who became disoriented passing over the dam and ready prey to predatorfish for whom the structure had become a feeding facility. Exacerbating all of this were the massive diversion pumps in the Delta turning the flow from west and the Pacific to south and the vast croplands of the San Joaquin Valley, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Rather than address the causes of the decline, Fish & Game did what most fishery agencies do, taking instead the politically expedient and easy course by proposing fishing closures. On a sweltering night at a packed Fish & Game Commission hearing in Sacramento, the Commission President and the Department explained stocks were down and cuts would have to be made. Sport fishermen were amazingly compliant, grumbling but guessing that was the right thing to do. Many on the commercial side sat silent, stunned. Then finally, a commercial member stood up and blurted out, thats bullshit! That was followed by a lambaste at the Commission and the Department for trying to punish fishermen for the governmental actions that were killing the fish.
What followed that July 1968 Sacramento meeting was more action by commercial fishermen, this time going to the Legislature and calling for the creation of a group to advise the state on the problems facing the salmon and recommended solutions. Legislation was passed creating the Citizens Advisory Committee on Salmon & Steelhead Trout, composed of both commercial and recreational fishing representatives. The first report An Environmental Tragedy was made to the Legislature in 1971. Among other things it found that less than 300 miles of spawning habitat remained in the Central Valley where there once was 6,000 miles for salmon. It documented the problems created by numerous dams and diversions, also looking at the Klamath, and attacked destructive land use practices as well notably logging at that time.
Although the three reports of the Advisory Committee (An Environmental Tragedy, A Conservation Opportunity, and The Time is Now) issued between 1971 and 1975 did not have an immediate affect, many of their recommendations were subsequently picked up and promoted by Governor Jerry Browns administration (whose father had fought the flows for the San Joaquin).
The activism of fishermen that had begun with baby steps in the 1950s was now in full stride by the mid-1970s. California fishermen joined with their colleagues in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and New England in pushing for elimination of foreign fleets offshore. They succeeded in convincing then-Congressman Don Clausen to introduce the first bill in the Congress, in 1969, to establish a 200 mile fishing limit, and then persuaded another California Representative, Robert Leggett, then Chair of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries & Wildlife Conservation, to hear and pass out Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds bill, HR 200, which was critical, getting a House bill to conference with Senator Warren Magnusons legislation, paving the way for the 1976 passage of the Fishery Conservation & Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act).
In the field, fishermen in California as well as Oregon, Washington and Alaska were increasingly found engaged in pond rearing of fish and hatch box projects. In California, fishermen joined with environmental groups fighting the aerial spraying of dioxin-laden pesticides over salmon bearing streams and had begun taking on logging operations that were destroying salmon habitat. Fisherman Nat Bingham, for example, got his start in a long career in salmon restoration operating salmon hatch box programs for Salmon Unlimited in the 1970s.
Fishermen were also putting their money where the mouths and backs had been. Following the 1976-77 drought, California commercial fishermen seized on an opportunity to match state drought funds with their own monies to assist some hatchery programs. The success of the initial Salmon Stamp program led to its expansion with a higher priced stamp allowing the fisherman committee appointed to oversee the program the ability to address habitat and protections for natural spawners as well as rearing hatchery stocks. The Salmon Stamp was also critical to providing matching funds and seed money (e.g., winter-run captive broodstock program) to help leverage other funds. It was fishermen activism that established the fund and fishermen today provide the policy guidance, though the Stamp Committee, for the expenditure of these industry-generated monies.
The Pacific Fishery Management Councils myopic approach to fishery management proved to be simply more of the same, which fishermen had encountered from the states fisheries were restricted, but the root habitat loss causes of fishery declines were never addressed. The fault was not entirely the Councils. The National Marine Fisheries Service narrowly interpreted the law, concluding that federal management throughout the range of a fish stock meant only 3 to 200 miles offshore, but not inland. But while the Council members could have used their position as a bully pulpit to try to fix habitat and flow problems bedeviling Pacific salmon stocks, its members, particularly the state agency representatives, retreated from their roles as trustees of the fish and fisheries, instead defending the hydro dams, destructive timber practices and Californias massive water projects.
In 1984, fishermen reactivated, through legislation, the Committee on Salmon & Steelhead Trout, expanding its membership to include a scientist and Tribal fishing representative. The first two reports from the reconstituted committee gained little attention, but its Restoring the Balance report of 1987 led to a number of bills that following year, including a statute making it state policy to double the states natural spawning salmon populations. Keep in mind, that when fishermen first formed Salmon Unlimited in the 1950s, state policy declared it is not in the public interest to maintain salmon populations.
The emphasis on natural spawners was out of concern that water agencies would simply offer up more hatcheries, allowing natural stocks to continue in decline. Since natural stocks supply essential broodstock to hatcheries over the course of years and because hatcheries dont always work and are expensive to operate, fishermen decided to put the emphasis on natural stock rebuilding, while not rejecting hatchery production where appropriate.
In the 1980s, California commercial fishermen also took an increasingly active role in water issues. After supporting for years a peripheral canal to move Sacramento River water around the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley, in lieu of the proposal to put a barrier across the Carquinez Straits separating the Delta and San Francisco Bay, thus diverting the fresh water to the east of the barrier, fishermen reconsidered their position. Sensing an increased public awareness for the environment (e.g., the efforts to save San Francisco Bay), they quickly recognized that the barrier proposal was dead and the Peripheral Canal posed its own problems. They joined a coalition of conservation and business groups, playing a key role in the successful 1982 statewide referendum to stop the Peripheral Canal by lending an economic argument to the environmental reasons for stopping the water grab.
Out of the coalition to stop the Peripheral Canal, California fishermen began working in an alliance with conservation and business organizations on statewide water issues. In 1986 they funded scientists and were part of a year long process before the State Water Resources Control Board determining flows required for the Delta and San Francisco Bay. That same year, too, PCFFA worked for passage of the Klamath Restoration Act establishing a restoration task force and fishery management council involving commercial fishermen. Sadly, despite the efforts of fishermen, the report with recommendations for restoring the Klamath was largely ignored and its recommendations never adopted as upper Klamath interests worked to derail a comprehensive plan for the basin.
Although the staff report of the State Board, in spite of a year of hearings and another year of deliberations and issued in October 1988, was not allowed to see the light of day, several parts of it, along with some of the recommendations from the Citizens Advisory Committee report, Restoring the Balance, did make their way into Congressional legislation aimed at reforming the operations of the Central Valley Project.
In 1992, California Congressman George Miller, together with New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, pushed legislation that incorporated the state doubling goal into the operation of the federal water project, made fish and wildlife a project purpose of the CVP, dedicated 800,000 acre-feet of water for fish and wildlife purposes (the federal half of the 1.6 million acre-feet of additional water the State Board staff had earlier found was needed for protecting Bay and Delta fish and wildlife resources). Fishermen were involved heavily that year in pushing the Miller-Bradley Central Valley Project Improvement Act. They testified, attended hearings and held the largest ever fishermens rally at the State Capitol in Sacramento calling for passage. The CVPIA passed that October, the first major reform of the Central Valley Project since its authorization in 1935.
In addition to this work on water issues, commercial fishermen were active in the matter of the ESA listing of the Sacramento winter-run chinook. This unique salmon run, the only one that spawns mid-summer, had been proposed for listing in 1986 by the American Fisheries Society when the population fell to 2,000 fish (from a population of about 120,000 spawners in 1969). NMFS and the state resisted, insisting on a voluntary program. However, widespread fishery closures werent voluntary and nobody else did anything. NMFS, however, did threaten PCFFA that it would close the ocean fishery if it [PCFFA] did not side with the agency fighting the AFS petition. PCFFA resisted the agency bullying. By 1989 the numbers were down to 400 fish and the state Fish & Game Commission listed the run under Californias ESA and NMFS had no choice thereafter, making this the first Pacific Salmon to be listed under the federal ESA.
As fishermen have found on the Columbia, a listing doesnt mean anything unless enforced. NMFS and the fishery management councils already have the ability to restrict fishing on any stock of concern and usually by the time of a listing, all directed fishing has been halted. Yet in spite of these closures, by 1991 winter-run numbers were down to 191 fish and the run was on a fast-track to extinction.
Nat Bingham, then PCFFA President, recognized the agencies were not going to do anything except blame fishermen once winter-run were gone, put in action a plan. Seizing on the experiments of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on a captive broodstock program for California condors, Bingham suggested a similar program for winter-run. He brought together agency representatives and academics and put in motion a broodstock program that included an innovative genetics element that both helped clearly identify the run and prevent it from being cross-bred with spring-run in the hatchery. Initial work was done at Coleman National Fish Hatchery, the University of Californias Bodega Marine Laboratory and the California Academy of Sciences Steinhart Aquarium. Bingham, shortly before his untimely death in 1998, even succeeded in getting a hatchery built for winter-run, naming it after Livington Stone who first wrote about the fish in his reports to the U.S. Fish Commissioner Spencer Baird.
Bingham, who was chairing the brood stock effort, recognized that fixes had to be made on the river. Another fisherman, Mel Dodgin, was active in a legislatively-mandated riparian restoration project for the Sacramento and they both recognized that conditions had to be changed on the river for there to be winter-run recovery. There had been a change of leadership at NMFS and the agency was looking for support if it sued two large water districts whose intakes were killing thousands of salmon smolts. Responding to NMFS request for support, PCFFA said if NMFS did not sue the water districts, PCFFA would sue NMFS. With that assurance of support, NMFS sued the water districts and won, mandating new screens. Bingham then went to Washington to help them secure funding for fish friendly screens.
Bingham and other fishermen never shied away from reaching out, reaching across the table to adversaries and attempting to work with them. The difference between them and other activist fishermen with some fishing groups is that they did not capitulate or allow themselves to be co-opted. Bingham would be forceful in taking on a Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, a large timber company, the Metropolitan Water District and others, but would also work with them where the solution would benefit the fish. One night in a packed joint legislative session, with a room full of legislators and water interests, he stood up alone, testifying for the fish and finished saying, we fishermen will bend over backwards to work with you, but we will never bend over forward.
It didnt stop there. Using the ESA, fishermen and NMFS were able to force the release of cold water, critical for winter-run survival, from the base of Shasta Dam. Since this release did not produce electricity, the Bureau of Reclamation suddenly became supportive of a temperature control device that they refused to consider in 1938. In 1990s dollars the device was now $100 million dollars.
Under threat of an ESA suit, the Bureau of Reclamation was also forced to lift the gates at its Red Bluff Diversion Dam, during winter-run migration, as well as curtail its Delta pumps when juvenile winter-run were migrating to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. The result has been a Pacific Salmon stock that is actually recovering amazing what happens when the ESA is enforced and numbers are now somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 spawners in the last few years. Better yet, the protections put in place for winter-run have also helped the Sacramento fall-run chinook that provide about 90 percent of Californias catch and the majority of Oregon and Washingtons ocean salmon production. Winter-run ESA protections, coupled with some actions taken under the CVPIA, together with good ocean conditions, have resulted in the highest numbers ever of Central Valley fall chinook. This would not have happened if it were not for the activism of commercial fishermen.
The 50 years of activism by fishermen has not stopped with work in the streams or in the political arena to save fish. There has also been considerable litigation.
Litigation by commercial fishermen is hardly newsworthy. It is not uncommon for fishermen to sue over regulations restricting fishing or reallocating fish to other sectors. What is newsworthy, or it was once here on the west coast, is when commercial fishermen sue to protect fish or fish habitat. Litigation, however, has long been part of an overall fisherman strategy to recover fish and consequently fisheries. It is usually the tool of last resort, used when all else fails, but is often an effective tool that fishermen should never back away from using if other methods are not working.
Litigation has been used by fishermen to fight for fish flows in FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] dam relicensing. It was used 25 years ago on the Eel River and the Potter Valley Project and it is being used now, as part of a fish advocacy policy, in the hearings surrounding the relicensing of the four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath.
Fishermen were parties to the litigation against the Bureau of Reclamation seeking fish flows from Friant Dam (NRDC v. Patterson) that after 18 years is now successfully being concluded. This litigation means there will be fish flows for the first time in 60 years below Friant Dam. Fishermen are also involved in litigation aimed at ensuring there are adequate flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect its ecosystem and the migratory route of Sacramento and San Joaquin salmon to the sea.
Fishermen have sued for the development of effective biological opinions (BiOps) on the Columbia and the Klamath, under the ESA. The litigation has mostly been successful, but NMFS continues to resist protecting fish and fishermen, as well as enforcing the ESA.
Fishermen have likewise sued to list or maintain the listing of certain salmon stocks. This has been particularly true in instances where directed fishing has already been closed by the Pacific Council and NMFS, but no other effective steps (voluntary programs dont work without some stick) are being taken to protect the fish. The MSA is effective in controlling fishing, but it takes the ESA to get at the often more devastating non-fishing impacts something that to this day is not understood by some fishermen. Concerned that the well-intentioned plan by the Governor of Oregon for the recovery of coho would not work on a voluntary basis, PCFFA, for example, has sued to maintain the listing of Oregon natural coho.
Fishermen have also sued under the Clean Water Act to force the development of TMDLs [Total Maximum Daily Loading] as a way of getting at water quality particularly temperature and sediment in salmon bearing streams. Under a court settlement (PCFFA v. Marcus), the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to order the development of TMDLs for 20 Northern California salmon streams, including the mainstem Klamath River and its Scott and Shasta River tributaries. These TMDLs could prove to be an effective tool in rebuilding Klamath salmon stocks and putting Oregon and California salmon fishermen back to work.
Finally, fishermen have also been part of litigation to prevent the application of pesticides near salmon streams that affects both the health of the stocks and the marketability of salmon.
Activism is not easy. It may mean taking time away from fishing. It means learning the issues and speaking out. It means getting in folks faces at times. It is seldom comfortable. It is hard work. Its a lot easier to do nothing. Its more comfortable just going along or being someones elses puppet, as weve seen on the Klamath. But if it were not for the activism of fishermen for the past 50 years, there certainly would be no salmon fishery in California and not much salmon to fish off Oregon and Washington.
This coming December we will commemorate 50 years of fishermen activism. Lets remember and thank those whove gone on before, and who we owe so much to, while we commit ourselves to the next 50 years by being in governments or anyone elses face who stands in the way in our fight to take care of the fish and take care of ourselves. We will bend over backwards, but not forward.
Zeke Grader is Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations with offices in San Francisco.
Pietro Parravano is a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay, California. He is President of the Institute for Fisheries Resources, a past President of PCFFA, and was one of two commercial fishermen who served on the Pew Oceans Commission.
Glen Spain is an attorney and the Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations Eugene, Oregon office.
PCFFA can be reached as follows: Southwest Office, PO Box 29370, SF, CA 04129-0370, (415)561-5080; Northwest Office, PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000; or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. PCFFAs Web Page is: www.pcffa.org.
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