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The water wars: California’s salmon vs. agribiz interests

I've been selling fish for 30 years, and I'm pleased that my store, the Monterey Fish Market, has a reputation for exceptionally fresh and sustainably sourced seafood. We're lucky in that our customers support us in our mission to provide the best possible product that doesn't contribute to the destruction of our wild fisheries. I'm constantly impressed with their concern for the environment in general and their knowledge of fisheries issues in particular.

We emphasize seasonally available fresh seafood from local, highly regulated fisheries: Dungeness crab, hook-and-line caught rock cod, albacore, squid, sand dabs, herring, and sardines. All of these species are caught in north state waters using methods that don't harm the base fisheries. We also sell oysters, clams, and mussels grown in environmentally benign aquaculture projects in Tomales Bay and other estuaries.

These fish and shellfish are delicious, healthful, and can be eaten with a clean conscience. Still, there's something missing in my line-up in recent years, and my customers and I miss it terribly: local, wild salmon. Not long ago, Chinook salmon pulled from our cold, clean offshore waters, constituted up to 50 percent of my business. Today: zilch, nothing. That's because there hasn't been a commercial salmon season in California and Oregon for the last two years.

Oh, we still offer some wild salmon ... from Alaska and British Columbia. But because we have to compete with Asia and Europe for this very limited resource, the prices are often astronomical. And while these fish are delicious, they're still not local fish. A salmon caught in near-shore waters on hook-and-line, then promptly iced and sold within 24 hours, is in a league of its own. The freshness, the flavor ... there's nothing comparable.

So for me and Monterey Fish Market's customers and employees, it's no small matter when we lose a state salmon season. The same can be said for millions of other people in California -- anyone who works in the food or restaurant trades, supports sustainable business, enjoys angling, or simply likes eating fresh, wholesome fish. The loss of our salmon fishery is a catastrophe that cuts across all social strata.

Chinook salmonChinook salmon fishing has been scaled way back in California. Photo: Zureks/Wikimedia CommonsUnhappily, the long-term outlook for this precious fishery is exceedingly grim. In 2005, almost 800,000 mature salmon returned to the Sacramento River and its tributaries to spawn. Last year, the number was only about 39,000, far too few to support fishing. Early projections are for slightly higher returns this year, but the general trend remains unchanged. California's salmon runs are collapsing.

What do we need to bring the salmon back? That's simple: water.

Salmon have evolved to spawn in freshwater streams and mature in the ocean. Any significant impediment in this cycle will drastically affect their numbers, even eliminate them entirely. It is no coincidence that our salmon population crashed at the same time Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta water exports to San Joaquin Valley corporate farms increased dramatically.

When we drain the Delta of its downriver flows, we deny the fish the water they need for their very survival. Before newly imposed protections for salmon and other fish, the huge state and federal pumps that send water south killed tens of thousands of young salmon during their downriver migration to the sea. Unless we change the way we distribute water from the Delta, our salmon will continue their slide toward extinction.

In California, water flows in the same direction as money. The West Coast's salmon fishers have been stripped of their rights and livelihoods by powerful corporate agricultural interests in the San Joaquin Valley. Though they are few in number, the owners and directors of these massive agribusiness enterprises have been able to seize the state's water for their own through lavishly funded political lobbying and a sophisticated, if deeply mendacious, public relations campaign. They technically receive water pursuant to "junior" state water rights -- meaning they are second in allocation after those who have held the rights longer -- but the spigot has been cranked wide open for them, at highly subsidized rates. Yet their only response has been to cry for more. Increasingly, they're not even using it to grow crops -- they're marketing it. A scheme to build 12,000 homes on environmentally sensitive San Francisco Bay salt ponds near Redwood City is predicated on obtaining water from San Joaquin Valley agribusiness.

When salmon numbers are low, restrictions are promptly placed on the catch, regardless of the impacts on the fishing industry. This is as it should be. Without the salmon, there is no industry. Everyone involved in this fishery, from the troller to the retailer, understands this. We may not like it, but we acknowledge the necessity of regulation.

But at the same time that fishers are fighting for their very survival, San Joaquin corporate farmers bristle at the mere whiff of restrictions on their voracious water consumption. Despite their status as junior water users, despite their knowledge that water deliveries are certain to become tighter as multiple demands stress our already limited supply, they persist in planting permanent, water-intensive crops such as almonds. [Editor's note: Matt Jenkins wrote an excellent, in-depth primer on California Central Valley water issues for High Country News.] When this strategy is questioned, they rail against "government interference."

Well, no one understands or accommodates such "interference" better than the people who catch, process, and sell salmon. If you are going to use water in this state, you must acknowledge both the limits of the resource and the rights of other citizens.

Fishing has been closed for the last two years to protect devastated salmon stocks, and will probably be closed in 2010 as well. This complete closure of the commercial and recreational salmon seasons has cost California 23,000 jobs and $2.8 billion in fishery-associated revenues.  If we could bring the stocks back from their pre-crash numbers, we could reclaim those jobs and the economic prosperity they generate. Wild, sustainable fisheries are the kind of business California needs. But if the salmon are going to give us what we need, we have to give them what they need. And that's their fair share of the water.

 

Paul Johnson is the founder and president of the Monterey Fish Market, a wholesale and retail fish market in the San Francisco Bay area, and works with environmental and fishery groups to influence public policy. He is currently a member of both the Ocean Protection Council's Dungeness Crab Task Force and its California Sustainable Seafood Advisory Panel, and sits on the advisory board to the Monterey Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program. He is the author of Fish Forever (Wiley 2007), which received the IACP Cookbook of the Year award, and coauthor of The California Seafood Cookbook.

[Cross-posted at Ethicurean]

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