Fishermen hit hard by closure of West Coast salmon fishing
Drastic federal action to try to save chinook salmon is latest move in ongoing battle.
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But most of all, it's dams – hundreds of them, from small ones to the eight mammoth concrete "mainstem" dams that turned the free-flowing Columbia and Snake Rivers into a series of slack-water reservoirs producing electrical power and irrigation and allowing oceangoing ships to sail upriver to Lewiston, Idaho.Skip to next paragraph
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There's added urgency, scientists say, because of global climate change affecting both ends of a salmon's life cycle: ocean conditions where they spend several years becoming mature adults as well as the far reaches of rivers and streams where they return for spawning in the cold, clean water and natural gravel beds.
A recent report by former Oregon state fisheries chief Jim Martin and National Wildlife Federation global-warming expert Patty Glick notes that hotter waters, changes in rain and snow, and snowpack declines have already begun in the Pacific Northwest – a region whose human population is expected to nearly double by midcentury, bringing more development that will affect river conditions.
"Salmon are exceptionally resilient and flexible and they will need all that resilience to survive global warming," says Ms. Glick.
The Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington has been tracking weather and climate changes likely to affect salmon. Among these scientists' findings: Regional temperatures have increased at slightly above global averages; spring runoff from snowpacks has declined between 30 to 60 percent in parts of the Cascade Mountains, which stretch from northern California to British Columbia; sea surface temperature in coastal waters is expected to rise about 2.7 degrees F. by the 2040s.
In San Francisco last week, US District Judge Oliver Wanger cited global warming as one reason he rejected a state plan for pumping water from the San Francisco Bay Delta on grounds that it would harm protected salmon. Among other things, Judge Wanger wrote, there was a "total failure to address, adequately explain, and analyze the effects of global climate change on the species."
A major part of the problem, critics of current water-management practices say, is the large amount of delta water diverted south for agriculture and municipal purposes. "This ruling makes it clear that there are biological limits to the amount of water we can export south," says Mike Sherwood, the Earthjustice attorney who represented the coalition of fishing and conservation groups that filed suit. The recent cancellation of the salmon fishing season along the coast of California and Oregon is the most immediate challenge, which is why the governors are seeking federal help.
"This is a disaster for West Coast salmon fisheries, under any standard," says Don Hansen, who chairs the Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional fishery management councils established by Congress in 1976. "There will be a huge impact on the people who fish for a living, those who eat wild-caught king salmon, those who enjoy recreational fishing, and the businesses and coastal communities dependent on these fisheries."
The situation is grim for salmon, but not without the possibility of resolution. "These salmon are recoverable if we make smart choices and make them soon," says Todd True, another Earthjustice attorney. "The science tells us it's not hopeless, but it is increasingly urgent to pay attention and change the way we're managing these three rivers so all people can enjoy salmon again."