By Michele Lanctot
Imagine this scenario: You are born in a tank amid thousands of family members, before being trucked miles away and dumped into the San Francisco Bay. Now, only inches in size, you make your way out of the bay into the great expanse of the ocean. You are prey to birds, marine mammals, and larger fish, and the once-abundant food supply is now scarce. After managing to survive three full years, you have to traverse thousands of miles upstream back to your place of birth to mate and sacrifice yourself for the next generation.
For salmon, these challenges are part of their day-to-day life. Salmon are a strong and resilient species, but recently their numbers have taken a surprisingly drastic decline. In fall 2007, hundreds of thousands of Chinook salmon were expected to return to Central Valley rivers to spawn, but a mere 70,000 made it back, the lowest number since 1919.
On April 10 of this year, in the hope of protecting a dwindling population, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council voted to close all commercial and recreational ocean fishing of Chinook salmon for this year’s season. As a hardy species, declining salmon illustrates the toll of the human population. If the numbers don’t increase, salmon may be facing extinction.
“Quite unprecedented! A complete shutdown is very unprecedented,” said Cindy Thomson, fisheries economics team leader at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “It affects a lot of ports. Salmon is taken from central California all the way up the coast.”
In 2004, the commercial ocean salmon fisheries brought in $35.9 million to the state of California. Recreational ocean fishing of salmon brought in another $18.6 million.
“This doesn’t just affect us,” said a local fisherman who wished to remain anonymous. “Think about it, we pay five bucks a gallon for diesel. Then there are the guys who fillet and process the fish, the wholesale distributors, tackle, ice, restaurants, waitresses, et cetera, not to mention the $400 a month to hitch my boat up.”
On March 5 of this year, members of Congress wrote a letter to Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of the Department of Commerce, requesting a declaration of “a commercial fishery failure” to allow Congress to seek “emergency disaster funds for the affected communities.” Three pages of signatures, including Santa Cruz Representative Sam Farr’s, followed this letter.
The salmon habitat expands across both legal and ecological borders — from ocean to freshwater, California to Alaska. In addition, the Coho are an endangered species, which means they are protected federally, but in the ocean it is hard to tell the difference between Coho and other species.
“The Pacific Fisheries Management Council manages the ocean fisheries, the state manages the river fisheries, and the water is managed by someone else,” Thomson said. “It is very fragmented. The salmon have this large and extensive habitat under a lot of different jurisdictions, so it is very difficult to manage them.”
Farr has authored the “first major revision of ocean policy in 40 years,” according to Tom Mentzer, Farr’s press secretary. Ocean’s-21 passed the House Committee on Natural Resources on April 23. This bill will connect the disjunctions of management and rely on local expertise to create ecosystem-based management of the ocean. No longer will bureaucratic lines in the sand separate the salmon’s habitat.
“If our oceans were a checking account, they’d be severely overdrawn,” stated Sam Farr in an e-mail correspondence from Washington, D.C. “We have to bring a sense of balance back to our decision-making, and we need to do that at the federal level. Low salmon levels are just the latest in a series of warning signs, and if we fail to take action we’ll all be complicit in the damage.”
In a letter to the president requesting federal disaster assistance on April 10, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approximated the economic impacts of the fishery closure due to the “catastrophic decline of Central Valley Chinook salmon” to total $225 million, along with 2,263 industry-related jobs lost.
Salmon fishing — or a lack thereof — has adversely affected Todd Fraser, the owner of Bayside Marine, a tackle shop at Santa Cruz Harbor.
“From a business standpoint, it is pretty bad. There is absolutely no money coming in,” Fraser said. “Customers come from far away to fish for salmon, but they won’t come if there is nothing to catch.”
Many local seafood restaurants have only served farmed salmon in the last few years. Though available year-round, this type of salmon is not the best alternative. Some farming methods can severely degrade the surrounding ecosystem and have detrimental health effects. The fish are penned and fed anchovies that tend to be high in polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs were once used in products such as coolants, stabilizing additives, and flame-retardants. They were banned in the 1970s, but are persistent organic pollutants and continue to accumulate in animals. Overfeeding also causes the bacterial food chain to deplete oxygen and suffocate plants and animals near farming pens.
In addition, accidents can happen. For Atlantic salmon farmed in British Columbia, net pens have broken, allowing fish to escape and displace native steelhead and less resilient salmon individuals. Plus, the farmed species have parasites that add even more challenges to native salmon babies.
“We have actually found a company that provides all-organic, antibiotic-free farmed Chinook from British Columbia,” said John Tara, president of Stagnaro Brothers Seafood Inc., a local seafood distributor. “The low-stress method is the closest you can get to local wild salmon.”
It may be a future alternative, but many fishermen will be without jobs. Last year the government subsidized the fishing industry, but fishermen had to navigate through stretches of red tape to acquire funding.
Local fishermen say they don’t want such handouts. They just want to keep the cultural heritage intact. For some, it has been a family business.
The Magnuson-Steven’s Fisheries Conservation and Management Act was set up in the 1970s to protect United States fishing interests. Through it, the federal government delegated management to a system of councils for each coastal region. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council represents Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, because some salmon swim all the way up the Columbia River to spawn in tributaries in Idaho.
The decision to close the fishery this year was not easy; dozens of working scientists presented statistics to the council. Chinook salmon species spawn in large rivers of central California, and Coho spawn in coastal streams. After two to five years living in the Pacific Ocean, they return to their river of origin. Their numbers are predicted by how many premature adults, called jacks, return early. In 2007, the model fell apart, according to Bruce MacFarlane, a fisheries ecologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Scott Creek is the southernmost population of salmon in the U.S.,” MacFarlane said. “One hundred and fifty Coho were expected to return, but there were less than 10 jacks total last fall. That was distressing.”
So why did this happen? Some point the blame at the many dams, water diversions, and agricultural pollution, among other factors, that affect the beginning of salmon life. Ninety percent of baby salmon are now born in hatcheries because of high degradation of river habitat. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council outlined a total of 46 potential contributors to salmon decline.
“Overfishing is not a factor for Chinook,” Macfarlane said. Because both the Chinook and the Coho species, which have different river spawning habitats, had lower than expected abundance, MacFarlane points to ocean conditions as a main factor.
The last thing local fishermen want to do is to deplete the fish. They use fishing line with barb-less hooks; if a small one is caught, they don’t even touch it, it goes right back unharmed. Despite their sustainable efforts, some fishermen said that they feel like criminals, stripped of their constitutional rights. Management requires all fishing boats have a tracking device. If in a protected area, even for a second, they can get all their catch confiscated.
Dr. Brian Wells, a scientific modeler also in the Fisheries Ecology Division, may have found the answer. He developed a multi-factorial model to analyze not just one, but 28 different variables in the ocean.
Each variable is important to salmon survival, including upwelling, a feature of the Central Coast that creates the rich diversity of plant and animal life found here. The current moving parallel to the shore is pushed westward by strong winds; this allows the nutrient-rich frigid water of the deep sea to emerge along the coast.
Salmon have evolved to swim to sea when the upwelling has peaked in early May, and there is the largest amount of food available to a growing baby salmon. In past years, upwelling did not start until late June. In addition, there is a phenomenon called Curl, which refers to the retention of water along the coast. So, not only is the food being produced poorly, it isn’t sticking around to be munched by growing fish. Not to mention the ever-looming rise in sea temperature.
“This may be the beginning effects of climate change,” MacFarlane said, “but that will have to be a retrospective determination.”
It is unclear how much of the crisis is caused by short-term human effects, and how much is caused by natural ocean patterns. Pacific Decadal Oscillation is similar to “El Niño.” Every 30 years or so there is a switch in coastal patterns. British Columbia serves as the transition zone. Water flowing east toward the coastline is either diverted north or south. From the 1940s to 1976, conditions were poor south of B.C. and great in the north up to Alaska. Then in 1976 fishing was tremendous. But now, over 30 years have gone by, and our turn to enjoy prosperous fishing may be over.
Upwelling conditions, however, are looking good this spring. Fishermen that have been out there, not just calculating statistics, know the fish are doing OK. The rockfish, whose numbers declined several years ago, have climbed back. But unfortunately for commercial fisheries, heavy restrictions remain.
“Though the crash this year may be primarily from ocean conditions, that should not say we drop our vigil or concern about maintaining healthy freshwater systems,” McFarlane said. “The Central Valley issues are big issues and I have no doubt that the water is being mismanaged in California. I don’t think there’s anybody who would disagree with that, except people that benefit from water use. Dams and salmon will never be good friends.”
Marc Shargel, owner of Living Sea Images, has been diving and photographing marine life on the Central Coast since 1978. He is concerned about mismanagement affecting marine animals.
“You can’t make a fundamental change in an ecosystem without something happening,” Shargel said. “Docks that were once lined with fishing boats are now spotted with sailboats. You have to ask: who is asleep at their desk?”
To Jonathan Moore, an assistant professor at UCSC, losing salmon is as much a cultural and economic loss as it is ecological. All life stages of salmon are critical for other species. They are the main food source for other fish, birds, marine mammals such as orcas, and terrestrial mammals such as grizzly bears. Even in death, salmon provide an abundance of nutrients to streams, fueling the survival of the next generation.
“Salmon are resilient. They haven’t gone extinct yet and that is a testimony to their ability to withstand pressure. It is amazing that they are still here and we shouldn’t take it for granted,” Moore said. “They will survive if given a chance. A sight of hundreds of adult, spawning fish, swimming upstream is awe-inspiring, and it would be a tragedy to lose that for future generations.”