By DAVID WHITNEY
May 30, 2005
Fishery advocates said the cuts, up to half of last year's commercial ocean season harvest in some areas, is especially damaging this summer because fall chinook returns on the Sacramento River are forecast to hit record numbers.
Because salmon stocks mingle in the ocean as they head back to their native rivers to spawn, harvest restrictions to preserve the few returning Klamath River fish mean that huge numbers of Sacramento River returns 2005- perhaps a million or more 2005- will go unfished.
"There's going to be fish washing up on the banks of the Sacramento River system that are basically going unused," said Chuck Tracy, salmon staff officer for the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland that sets West Coast fishing seasons.
Exactly how bad it will be is unclear, but some estimates put the damage at $100 million or more. It's not just the value of the fish, but the processing and service-industry jobs as well. Millions of dollars more will be lost in the sport fishing and tourism industries.
What is clear is that the developing situation has extensive and bitter political undercurrents.
The Klamath chinook collapse four years ago occurred at a time when, faced with a drought, federal water managers had to balance Klamath River water distributions between protected fish and angry Klamath Basin farmers.
Now the Bush administration, through the Commerce Department and its fisheries arm, has to decide whether the consequence is an economic disaster for fisherman. And if it does, it is the Republican-controlled Congress that will have to decide how much federal taxpayers pay to compensate for those policies.
Stirred into this boiling political caldron is the federal Endangered Species Act, which is a key part of the mix in determining water flows to protect endangered fish on both the Sacramento and Klamath rivers.
Federal efforts to improve flow and wildlife habitat along the Sacramento have resulted in improved fish returns. This year, three times as many chinook are expected in the river system than 20 years ago. A staggering 1.68 million salmon are expected when, according to federal fishery biologists, only 180,000 or so are needed to spawn an average 2009 run.
By contrast, the return of spawning 4-year-old chinook on the Klamath will be the worst in 20 years, and roughly a third of what returned last year. Federal fisheries managers anticipate a Klamath run of 48,000, which is just 13,000 more than needed to spawn an average 2009 run.
"The Sacramento River run has been an Endangered Species Act success story," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "The Klamath River is an ESA disaster."
In 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation angered Klamath Basin farmers by turning off irrigation supplies to save fish. By next spring, the agency reversed course under pressure from Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration, and river flows dropped to preserve water for irrigators.
This is the very period that little fish that should be this year's chinook harvest were getting their start. Spawned by returning 2001 adults, the juvenile fish encountered low flows and warm water on their way out to sea in early 2002, and most didn't make it. Later that fall, more than 30,000 returning adult chinook also turned up diseased and dead in lower reaches of the river.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, one of the harshest critics of the Bush administration over Klamath policy, jumped on the forecast of weak 2005 returns last year, and in a July 2004 letter to President Bush asked for preparations for economic disaster relief.
"The low flows causing the fish kill were the direct result of actions taken by the Klamath Irrigation Project, operated by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, which diverted water from the river that year that was needed for fish survival," wrote W.F. "Zeke" Grader Jr., the association's executive director.
That letter triggered an economic disaster study under way by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries arm. That is required for the administration to issue an economic fisheries disaster determination, a precursor to a congressional relief package.
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