Could California's salmon make a comeback?

After years of decline, the rich human community that depends on California’s salmon runs may at last be rebounding

Published June 2, 2013 12:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on

OnEarthJon Rosenfield and I bushwhack through the scrubby willows that line the American River east of Sacramento. The air is crisp this October morning, and the timing of our visit should be just right to watch California’s Chinook salmon as they return to where their lives began and spawn the next generation. Rosenfield, a biologist, works for a conservation group called the Bay Institute, and he wants me to witness an annual ritual that future generations might not have the opportunity to see.

For the salmon, it’s the end of a hard journey that typically lasts three years. After hatching in the river’s gravelly bottom, the young often hang out in its shallow backwaters, developing the bulk and camouflage they need for survival. They then travel downstream toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta -- the tidal estuary where they start their transition from fresh to salt water -- and out through San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. There the fish spend most of their lives, feasting on krill, crab larvae, herring, sardines, and anchovies. This is in preparation for the most arduous part of their life cycle: the swim upstream to close the loop. By the time the salmon reach the spot where Rosenfield and I are standing, their energy has been channeled entirely from survival toward reproduction. They’ve stopped eating. Their skin is falling off. After depositing eggs or fertilizing them, they will die. Their carcasses -- "these millions of 20-, 30-, 40-pound bags of fertilizer," says Rosenfield -- will be eaten by coyotes, bears, and eagles, which in turn will spread their droppings across forest floors and agricultural fields. "In watersheds where wine grapes are grown and salmon still spawn," he says, "you can detect the ocean-nutrient signature in the wine."

We reach the bank and step onto some rocks. For a moment, I see nothing but the river’s flow. Then a fin pops out, followed by a splash. "You see that red?" Rosenfield asks, pointing to a flash of color. "That’s a sexual signal." I notice one fish circling another in what the biologist identifies as courtship activity. My eyes adjust, and I realize the water is pocked with these displays of fertility.

We wouldn’t have seen this a few years ago, Rosenfield tells me. "We might have seen a salmon or two." Historically, up to two million Chinook returned to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems each year to spawn, and in 2002 the Pacific Fishery Management Council recorded 770,000 in its fall count. That number plummeted to 91,000 in 2007, such a dramatic crash that the council shut down the next two commercial-fishing seasons and much of the third. After 2009, when the spawning run bottomed out at 41,000, the population started climbing, reaching an estimated 284,000 last fall, a modestly encouraging number if not the record-breaking bounty many had hoped for. The reasons for the collapse are numerous and interconnected: the damming of California’s rivers; poor ocean conditions; the reliance on hatcheries, with their genetically inferior fish, to make up for lost habitat; and the increasing extraction of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by two giant pumping stations built to slake the Golden State’s thirst.

Salmon’s decline harmed more than the birds, bears, and trees that rely on them. It also wreaked havoc on a vast human ecosystem of commercial and recreational fishers, along with businesses like marinas, restaurants, and tackle manufacturers. It roused to action small farmers inside the delta, who share the salmon’s need for water. Californians from those sectors, along with environmentalists, have banded together to warn that misguided policy decisions could permanently close an iconic fishery, devastate an economy, and destroy a traditional way of life.

* * *

Before sunrise on San Francisco’s Embarcadero -- before the buskers haul out their portable amplifiers, before the tourists start carrying around bread bowls sloshing with clam chowder -- the local salmon business is already cranking up along the muddy back wharves. Industrial ice machines whir. Forklifts emit their back-up warning beeps. Sea lions hover near fishing boats while gulls circle overhead. Down the cavernous hallway of Pier 33 and past a makeshift wall topped with coils of razor wire, the phone rings insistently inside a business called the Monterey Fish Market.

Slips of paper cover a dispatcher’s table as the calls come in from white-linen restaurants, tech-firm cafés, and specialty grocers. Boxes of seafood, some trucked from less than a mile away, pass through a plastic curtain into the wholesale facility, where workers in orange and yellow rubber aprons unpack, scale, gut, carve, wash, weigh, and repack. Since 3:00 a.m. they’ve been crisscrossing one another on the concrete floor, pushing hand trolleys and loading the metal shelves with wild-caught fish. The air is cold, like the inside of a refrigerator, and filled with numbers. "Nineteen point six!" "Veinticinco nueve!" "You said you needed 25? I’ve got 18 so far."

Paul Johnson looks up from his computer to survey the hubbub. The market’s founder is 64, with swept-back salt-and-pepper hair and a voice as gravelly as a river bottom, betraying his Rhode Island roots. His arms slice the air when he talks about salmon, which he does often as one of the most outspoken voices in the effort to save the California Chinook.

In the late 1970s, Johnson was tooling around the country when his motorcycle broke down in Berkeley. He camped out in a field and woke to the sounds of restaurant employees reporting for work. Right next to the field was Inn Season, a classic French and Italian restaurant opened by a local physicist. "How about a job?" someone asked. Hired as a cook, Johnson fell into the city’s "gourmet ghetto" scene, where he befriended Alice Waters, owner of the pioneering eatery Chez Panisse. The two easterners would commiserate about the sorry quality of seafood sold to Bay Area restaurants by shoddy suppliers. (Before one special dinner, a wholesaler delivered a soggy box of freezer-ruined salmon labeled in Cyrillic letters rather than the promised local Chinook.) "So I took my suicide-door Lincoln Continental and drove over to San Francisco to see what I could find," Johnson says.

Walking along Fisherman’s Wharf, breathing in the briny air, he discovered beautiful fresh salmon and other species coming off the Italian dories that dominated the local fleet. He began buying and selling seafood, then quit his cooking job to become a full-time wholesaler. He’s run the market for more than 30 years, specializing in sustainable harvests from small-boat American fishermen. The products he sells are seasonal, with none so special as California Chinook, which brings in 40 percent of his revenue during the fall-run season. "When salmon hits," he says, "it’s like when the Giants go to the playoffs."

A few blocks north, at 4:30 a.m., Jacky Douglas is brewing coffee and readying paperwork on her charter boat, the Wacky Jacky, in preparation for the arrival of the day’s sport-fishing customers. Eighty-four years old, with blue eyes and shoulder-length silver-blond hair, she possesses every bit of the radiance that in the 1940s earned her the title of Queen of the San Francisco 49ers. During halftime, Douglas would ride around Kezar Stadium in a convertible. ("The stands whistled shrill approval," reported the San Francisco Chronicle.) Today her preferred conveyance is the 50-foot Delta that she bought in 1976 to take people salmon fishing. By then she had spent decades paying close attention to the "kings of the fleet" as they taught her how to cut bait, read the tides, and count the minutes between buoys.

A female captain was often unwelcome during those early years. Douglas was picked on in boating classes, hazed on the water, dismissed by loan officers. "They couldn’t understand why this woman wants to be a party-boat skipper," she says. To buy the Wacky Jacky, she and her husband "hocked everything but the kids." She worked hard to prove herself until grudging acceptance turned to affection.

Today Douglas is considered both the matriarch of the San Francisco salmon community and its most sympathetic spokesperson. Her customers show up at 5:30 for a day of fishing that can stretch into the late afternoon. She still gets a thrill when someone lands his first catch, especially if it’s a child. "Everybody cheers and hollers," she says. "We yell. We high-five it out there. Strangers become friends."

At home Douglas sleeps under a mounted 52-pound salmon. She showers in a bathroom tiled in a salmon motif. When she’s not piloting her boat, she attends every public forum she can to speak out for protection of the species. "If it wasn’t for salmon, I wouldn’t be able to go on," she says. She’s referring to her career, but she’s also talking about how captaining the Wacky Jacky helped her blossom after a miserable childhood. "I always kept a barrier around myself," Douglas says. "I just wonder what made me get strength enough to keep going. I think it was my family, my girls -- and the salmon."

* * *

California’s salmon business exists, for many, at the intersection of the commercial and the sacred. Larry Collins, a burly 55-year-old with a walrus mustache, divides his time between his own commercial fishing boat and the warehouse on Pier 45, overlooking Alcatraz, where he runs a co-op for 14 small-boat captains. During the months he and his wife, Barbara, harvest salmon, they stay out for four nights at a time. They follow the fish by day, catching them with barbless hooks, then anchor at night and turn off their 400-horsepower engine. "You shut off all the electronics, your radar and fish-finder, maybe except one radio, and you shut the main down," Collins says. "And it’s quiet. And there you are. There’s the beach. There’s the birds. There’s the whales coming up right by the boat. You can hear the Duxbury buoy, the bell on it dinging."

If there’s a counterpoint to those quiet nights, it’s the commotion of the fleet arriving back at Fisherman’s Wharf. "It’s like a religious experience when the salmon hit the dock," Collins says. "[Buyers] come out of the woodwork who you haven’t seen for a year and say, 'Oh, God, these fish are beautiful.' Every day they come over and get 500 pounds or 1,000 pounds. The tourists walking on the dock see these 20-, 30-pound salmon coming out of the fish hold of a boat, and they go, 'We didn’t know there was salmon in California.'"

But there is, even if the state’s salmon fishery isn’t as famous as Alaska’s, which in some years can be dozens of times as large. According to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, California’s commercial fishing boats unloaded an average of $17.6 million worth of Chinook annually between 1979 and 2010, adjusting for inflation. But that’s only the value of the catch; it doesn’t count the ripple effects.

Collins draws an analogy to the way salmon bring the ocean’s nutrients inland. "It’s the same thing when the fleet comes in," he says. "All that ocean goodness just flows into town. The fish come off the boats. The checks go in the captains’ pockets and the crews’ pockets. And then they go to the Safeway and they go to the fuel dock and the icehouse. They go to a restaurant and have a nice meal. They go to the chandlery to buy shackles and chains and hooks. And then those fish go to distributors that have truck drivers and fish cutters and salesmen. It just goes on and on and on."

When the fishery collapsed in 2007, so did all that activity. California officials calculated that the cancellation of the 2008 season cost the state’s economy $255 million and 2,263 jobs, and the 2009 closure slightly more. Other estimates ran much higher.

The impact was evident, and sickening. Two large processors used to share Pier 33 with Paul Johnson’s Monterey Fish Market. After the fishery closure, both went out of business. Now in the early mornings, when the pier should be at its liveliest, it feels dark and abandoned instead. Other businesses use the space for storage. "Tables or something," Johnson says. "I don’t know."

Larry Collins survived by focusing on crabs and digging into his savings. He also used his downtime to step up his political advocacy. But other fishermen gave up. "They were crushing boats in Fort Bragg," he says -- a port town three hours up the coast. "Drug them up on the bank and drove a Caterpillar over them and put them in Dumpsters. Boats that I fished next to for 30 years. Guys walking away from the boats because they couldn’t pay the mortgage. Guys lost their houses, they lost their wives, they lost their families. They lost -- shit, I know people who killed themselves. They lost the hope to live."

The number of commercial salmon-vessel licenses issued in California dropped from 1,521 in 2003 to 1,149 last year. (Even fewer vessels are active.) Fuel docks, boat dealers, and marine supply centers were shuttered. In Sonoma County’s Bodega Bay, the owners of one bait shop lost not only their business but also their home and all their savings. They left on a Greyhound bus to live with out-of-state relatives.

* * *

The collapse had been building for more than a century. Salmon are resilient creatures, capable of surviving even as humans dismantle and contaminate their habitat. But that ability has limits, and in 2007 a confluence of factors lined up perfectly to send the population into free fall.

The stresses began with the Gold Rush of 1849, which silted up the waterways. That was followed by the twentieth-century frenzy of dam construction for hydroelectric power and farm irrigation, which reengineered California’s river system. "Salmon are intimately tied to this river continuum," says Jon Rosenfield. "Impound their waterways and they can’t migrate." Some 75 percent of the salmon’s historic habitat has been lost, says the biologist Peter Moyle, associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

To mitigate this loss, the state built eight salmon hatcheries, where some returning adults are diverted to produce reliable spawn. Funneled into holding ponds, the fish are killed and their eggs harvested and fertilized. Millions of hatchlings live on-site until they can be released back into the migration corridor. But these hand-raised, genetically uniform fish lack the wiles of their forebears. "They don’t know how to behave when faced with a predator," says Moyle. When the ocean is teeming with food, that doesn’t matter so much; even with high predation rates, plenty survive. "But as soon as you get into poor conditions, then it does matter," he explains.

Ocean conditions are related to the strength of the currents that flow southward along the California coast; strong currents mean more upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the bottom to the surface. Those currents are, in turn, influenced by global atmospheric phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña. In 2007, Moyle says, many of the hatchery fish seemed to arrive at the ocean at the same time. "They all turned left and went over to Monterey Bay, where most food seemed to be." Then conditions turned sour, "and these fish presumably starved to death. They disappeared," he says.

Salmon might have survived the dams, hatcheries, and ocean conditions if not for one last, overwhelming, stress: the increasing amount of freshwater that is extracted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a 1,153-square-mile estuary formed by the confluence of its two namesake rivers. Now mostly agricultural -- its leveed islands interlaced by rivers, sloughs, and short channels called cuts -- the delta supplies water to the state’s driest regions. Two pumping stations in the southern delta, one operated by the state and the other by the federal government, suck water with such force that two nearby rivers sometimes run backward. From the state pumps, 701 miles of pipelines and canals deliver drinking water to 25 million Californians, most of them farther south. The larger federal facility exports irrigation water for one-third of the state’s farmland, most notably in the San Joaquin Valley, where the water has transformed a desert once considered uninhabitable into the nation’s top fruit- and vegetable-growing region.

Pumping devastates salmon. Brett Baker, a biologist and pear farmer, lives in the northern delta, near two large gray gates that steer Sacramento River water southward toward the federal pumps. "They should have a sign that says, 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,'" he says of the structure. "Salmon come down here and they get lost. They’re riding the surf and getting sucked from the river, and they wind up following the flow to where the pumps are." Guided away from their ocean destination, the disoriented salmon are vulnerable to predation, high temperatures, and pollution. Some get sucked into the pumps and killed.

Less water also means less flooding, which in turn diminishes the shallow, productive habitat salmon need. What’s more, to meet agricultural- and drinking-water standards, says Rosenfield, "we’ve done everything we could to make the delta into a freshwater lake rather than a dynamic tidal estuary," using both levees and reservoir releases to hold back saltwater encroachment. This has attracted lake-dwelling invasive species: predators such as sunfish, along with plants that filter sediment out of the water and hide those predators, making it easier for them to see and target young salmon.

San Joaquin Valley agricultural interests insist they need the delta’s water to feed consumers safely and reliably. "There are crops that almost entirely come from California," says Ara Azhderian, water policy administrator at the San Luis & Delta–Mendota Water Authority. Cutting water to the valley, he insists, would "squelch one of the most productive regions in our own nation" and force us "to import more fruits and vegetables from lands where we can’t control the labor practices and pesticide usage." Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, adds that the valley’s farmers have already improved their irrigation practices and shifted their cropping patterns to use water more wisely.

Barry Nelson, a California water consultant and former senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), acknowledges that many growers, especially in the Westlands district, have learned to grow profitably with less water. But there’s still considerable room for improvement, he says. Some farmers "irrigate the way the Babylonians irrigated" and need to adopt state-of-the-art technology. Some grow low-value crops like hay (including for export to Japan) rather than high-value vegetables that could finance investments in efficiency. Part of the problem, Nelson says, is that water remains cheap, or even free, for many growers. "Their management of that resource," he says, "will reflect the price."

Environmentalists like Nelson don’t call for the closure of the pumps. Rather, they note that water exports have kept trending upward, doubling over the past 45 years and exceeding the estuary’s capacity to support salmon. Brett Baker says he feels frustrated that his valley counterparts keep demanding more water even as fish populations collapse. "It’s like giving drink to a drunk," he says. "It’s never enough."

* * *

In January, after the salmon season ends, I visit Baker on his 40-acre pear farm on the delta’s Sutter Island. Mallards fly overhead as we walk along the levee road and survey the trees below us. They are defoliated for the winter, and their red suckers stick straight up in a way that suggests oversize troll dolls. Soon Baker will prune the suckers and spray the trees with oil, forcing them to bloom simultaneously. In the spring he’ll start irrigating, then harvest the fruit in the summer. Some will be sold fresh. Some will end up in cans of Del Monte fruit cocktail.

Baker is 29, lanky and personable, with bushy brows and long lashes. He lives with his wife and daughter in a former migrant labor camp that his parents remodeled in the 1970s and turned into their home. Across the levee is Steamboat Slough, a wide channel that was historically the shortest route between Sacramento and San Francisco. As a child, Baker used to pick blackberries on the slough’s banks -- "traipsing around, thinking I was Huck Finn." He fished there, too, catching salmon and striped bass and taking pride when his grandfather enjoyed a meal that Baker himself had reeled in. "You could bring him a Cadillac," he says. "But that guy would really get fired up over a fresh piece of fish." Those experiences led Baker to study fish biology at the University of California, Davis. "Oh my God, you’re going to become a tree hugger," he recalls his father saying. The son replied, "I’ll always be a pear-tree hugger."

Baker wasn’t about to break with six generations of tradition dating back to the Gold Rush. He shows me an old Hustler Brand fruit-crate label mounted over his kitchen sink. It depicts a cowlicky boy in a jaunty cap hawking newspapers headlined "California Bartletts." The boy is Baker’s great-great-grandfather Charlie Fiedler, who visited San Francisco with his father after the 1906 earthquake. With the city in ruins, the market for pears collapsed, so young Fiedler grabbed some newspapers and sold them in Golden Gate Park and at Baker Beach. "That was what they used to pay the property taxes on the ranch that year," says Baker, whose own cowlick matches his ancestor’s. "He saved the ranch. He was the hero."

Farming and fishing are "interwoven in my DNA," Baker says. Just as starving the delta of water harms salmon populations, it also puts at risk the water quality and reliability that he as a pear grower needs to survive. “For us it’s more immediate because it stands to impact our daily life," he says. "But for all Californians it stands to impact the future of our state -- whether we’re going to have 6,000- to 10,000-acre orange groves down in the valley, or we’re going to continue to allow people to farm on a family scale up here."

We turn around, our backs to the farm, and look over the oak-studded embankment toward Steamboat Slough. "For the first time in four years or so, everybody’s excited to see there’s salmon in the river again," Baker says. "And we have sea lions that come up into the delta to chase these fish. People are like, 'Whoa, I haven’t seen a sea lion in three years.' And it’s all interconnected. It’s all part of California."

* * *

Salmon’s defenders have been in the political trenches since the 1950s, always lacking the clout and financial resources of San Joaquin Valley agriculture. The fishery collapse of 2007 sparked them to create the 3,000-member Golden Gate Salmon Association, which focuses on achievable population-rebuilding projects. It also inspired them to broaden their coalition. Commercial and recreational fishers and environmentalists joined together with delta farmers, tribal leaders (who have traditionally depended on salmon as a dietary staple), and the industries that rely on salmon’s ripple effect. "We’ve ended up with an unholy alliance," says Baker. "These are people who have litigated one another, and they have laid down their arms and sung a verse or two of 'Kumbaya.'"

The breadth of that coalition was visible during three "salmon summits" held in Northern California starting in 2010. As elected officials listened, their constituents talked about the personal impacts of the fishery closure. Jacky Douglas spoke, as did Baker. Paul Johnson sharply criticized what he views as an unfair water grab by the San Joaquin Valley.

"Politically powerful industrial agriculture is taking subsidized water and growing subsidized crops in 105-degree heat," he told an overflow crowd in San Francisco. "Even though they have junior water rights" -- a low-priority legal claim -- "they’re persisting in planting pesticide- and water-intensive almonds, tens of thousands of acres. And then they’re complaining about it when they don’t get enough water." Meanwhile, businesses like his own struggle to survive, if they haven’t yet failed. "When I walk down to the docks, when I open up my own phone books, when I look at Fish Alley, where I used to sell fish for years and years, I see nothing but ghosts," he said.

In 2011 Larry Collins, the fisherman, drove to Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley, to speak at a congressional hearing dominated by big agricultural interests that wanted more of the delta’s water. "There is no more water," he told the House Subcommittee on Water and Power. "Every drop is spoken for. You can’t keep planting permanent crops. You’ve gotten way more than your share of the water and you’ve got to give some back.

"Farmers and fishermen are a lot alike," Collins added. "We’re both food providers. The weather can make us or break us. Mother Nature can be a cruel business partner. But the more water you take out of the system to smooth out your ups and downs, the more you guarantee the death spiral of my industry."

* * *

Last year’s salmon season was a welcome reprieve, thanks to more productive ocean conditions. But the operative word is reprieve: the crash and comeback are part of what Peter Moyle calls a roller-coaster cycle of "boom and bust, then bust again." Even in a good year, only one of the Chinook’s four seasonal runs, the fall run, is commercially viable. The winter and spring runs are both listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, the former as "endangered" and the latter as "threatened."

Several forces threaten to tilt the balance further away from fish protection. An ongoing legal battle -- a tangle of unresolved lawsuits and appeals -- could potentially undo pumping restrictions that a federal judge put in place in 2007. (NRDC is one of the litigants.) Meanwhile, in Washington, Representative Devin Nunes, a San Joaquin Valley Republican, has been trying to get Congress to preempt California’s strict water-protection laws and limit enforcement of the Endangered Species Act in the delta. His legislation, which Jason Peltier calls a "simple expression of frustration," passed the House last year.

Then there’s the long-term plan by California officials to build two underground tunnels that would divert water from the Sacramento River in the northern delta and carry it 35 miles south until it reaches the pumping stations. State officials and the Obama administration believe the tunnels would guarantee Californians more reliable water supplies while also protecting fish. But environmentalists, fishermen, and delta farmers worry that the tunnels could starve the delta of water, making conditions for salmon even worse. "This silver bullet of a solution, this pipeline, it’s no solution at all," says Baker.

With all these political threats, some advocates fear that California could lose its salmon-fishing industry altogether. That thought is too much for Douglas to bear. "I don’t even want to discuss that. It can’t happen, not while I’m alive," she says. "You take the salmon and collapse it, and you take the spirit out of thousands of people. You’re collapsing the hearts of many. It would be devastating, just like a big earthquake."

That potential earthquake would ravage not just an industry. It would mean the end of a culture: the high fives aboard the Wacky Jacky; the salmon dinners served by uniformed waiters at Scoma’s on Fisherman’s Wharf; the quiet nights when Larry Collins and his wife lie on their boat listening to the Duxbury buoy. The old-timers on the Italian dories, or Brett Baker’s grandfather anticipating a plate of his grandson’s catch, would no longer be connected to a living salmon culture, but rather would be artifacts of a history that can no longer be retrieved.

By Barry Yeoman

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to OnEarth, his work has appeared in Discover; O, The Oprah Magazine; AARP The Magazine; and Audubon.

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