Have You Ever Seen a Wild Salmon?

Apr 26, 2023
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

While we celebrated Earth Day around the Bay Area this past weekend, there was a sad backdrop to the festivities: State authorities shut down the Chinook salmon fishing season this year because there aren’t enough salmon in the ocean to support California’s legendary fishery.

The Baykeeper team was lucky enough to see wild salmon a few years ago. We were rafting on the Yuba River, and the giant fish were close enough that we could touch them. But now, the salmon populations that have lived in the Bay’s watershed for millennia are disappearing. It’s possible that our future generations will never get to see salmon in the wild.

The declining salmon population isn’t due to overfishing. Salmon fishing is well-regulated, and fishing boat captains were the first to sound the alarm. Nor is it due to the recent drought. Over the ages, salmon have survived much longer dry spells. This year’s lack of salmon is not even due to the ongoing pollution and habitat destruction that regularly challenge the survival of the region’s wildlife.

The responsibility for the Chinook salmon’s demise lies solidly with state government officials and their failure to plan for nature’s water realities.

California has always had a variable climate, with wet years following dry periods—and we’re likely to see even more extremes of each because of the climate crisis. Yet every year, the state’s regulatory agencies act as if they’ve found themselves in an emergency. They make water-use decisions with a false sense of urgency and ignore their own water quality standards—which are too weak in the first place—to appease the unquenchable thirst of Central Valley agribusiness.

The loser is always the San Francisco Bay watershed, its fisheries, and the people who depend on a healthy Bay.

Three months ago, Governor Newsom urged his agencies to waive requirements for river flows, so the state could instead store more water to send to industrial agricultural operations. But within just a few weeks of that decision, this year’s heavy winter rains had filled the state’s reservoirs beyond capacity. Now dam operators must release water quickly to avoid floods. And those floods could be catastrophic if the record Sierra Nevada snowpack melts too fast.

The funny thing is, no matter if the year is wet or dry, California always has enough water.

We have sufficient water to protect the health of California’s waterways, sustain our salmon fisheries, and provide water to meet the needs of tribal, rural, and other vulnerable communities. We can meet the needs of urban water users, especially because Californians have shown themselves willing to conserve and recycle water. And we can do all this while still providing water to grow abundant food crops that are appropriate for our climate.

We just need a plan to live within our water budget. And that plan should start with the State Water Board strengthening the rules that safeguard our river flows so that historic species, like the Chinook salmon, don’t go extinct while the state tries to figure the rest out.

If you want to learn more, the award-winning documentary River’s End: California’s Latest Water War shines a light on how water allocation decisions are made in California. It’s been airing on PBS this month and features some of our staff and allies discussing the real dangers of California being unprepared for our water realities (visit this link to find viewing options).

If you’re inspired, please sign and share our action alert urging Governor Newsom to protect river flows and stop the extinction crisis in the Bay’s watershed. And if you haven’t already seen salmon in the wild, I encourage you to get out on the Bay or up to one of our beautiful tributary rivers to see them before the next Earth Day—and before it might be too late.

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