Sacramento River Chinook salmon were hailed for many years as a remarkably sustainable fishery, a brilliant model of successful habitat and fisheries management in a highly urbanized human environment, and a delicious symbol of summertime cuisine. But finally, the Sacramento Chinook salmon essentially vanished.
What happened? Mike Hudson and others believe it was the increased water diversion from the Sacramento over the last four years. In the early years of the decade, when Sacramento Chinook salmon saw some of their greatest returns in decades, the state siphoned off an average of 5 million acre feet per year, said Hudson. But starting in 2005, a sudden two-million-acre-foot increase in the amount of water pumped annually out of the delta has proved too much for the salmon.
"Every ecosystem has a tipping point," Hudson said. "You can push it, push it, push it without results, but then it suddenly comes crashing down."
Friends of the well-remembered Chinook salmon will gather this Saturday and Sunday at Jack London Square to eulogize and praise this abruptly vanished member of the local seafood economy. Featuring music, food and public speakers, SalmonAid, as the free event is called, will commemorate the history and plight of the illustrious Chinook while maintaining the hope that wild salmon will return.
For Hudson, a commercial fisherman from Berkeley who orchestrated SalmonAid, the disastrous decline of the Chinook salmon is a discouraging step backward for mankind.
"The salmon is a banner species. People love salmon. We admire them, and if we let something go that we love so much, then what does that mean we're going to do with everything else? How will we sustain ourselves if we can't sustain our salmon?"
Eight hundred thousand fall-run Chinook salmon migrated upstream on the Sacramento to spawn in 2002. This fall experts expect a dismal total of 50,000. The fishing season has been closed, and wild California salmon will not be available on menus or neighbors' barbecues for at least two years. Yet most experts agree that fishing was not the cause of the crash. Likewise, Hudson says, the ban on fishing will not fix the problem.
"I'm totally in support of the closure this year because we cannot afford to lose just one more fish, but it's important to point out that this is not due to overfishing. A lot of people are saying, 'Great, the fishing is shut down and now the salmon can recover,' but other issues are at fault."
Zeke Grader is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, which will feature an educational booth at SalmonAid, along with over two dozen other salmon-related organizations. Grader believes fast action could save the Sacramento Chinook. "If we begin to address the delta's problems and the overpumping so that the natural spawners can survive, then I think there's a real chance we can bring everything back in a few years."
Fishermen and other friends of wild salmon fear that consumers may turn to farmed salmon in the absence of the wild fish. Don't do it, they warn. Salmon-farming facilities are known destroyers of wild salmon. The open-ocean pens, swarming with fish, are havens for parasites and disease, and wild salmon that pass near are easily exposed to these ailments. Big business in British Columbia, such open-ocean salmon farming is currently prohibited in California, but Hudson fears that aquaculture moguls will begin trying to break down legal barriers and establish pens along the state's coastline.
"Just imagine what will happen when people discover that salmon can be created without rivers anymore. That scares me to death. If people decide that we no longer need our rivers, we are going to finally suck them dry, and if we lose our interest in wild fish, they'll go by the wayside."
Several West Coast restaurants, including Fish of Sausalito, Flea St. Cafe of Menlo Park, and The Basin of Saratoga, will serve wild Alaskan salmon at SalmonAid. These restaurants have vowed never to serve farmed salmon, even if the Sacramento's salmon don't return for years. Kenny Belov, manager and fish buyer at Fish, advises salmon-hungry consumers to seek out wild Alaskan salmon or simply buy line-caught rockfish and other local, sustainably harvested species.
"If we don't support our salmon fishermen through these times when they have to catch other fish to make a living, then people will get accustomed to farmed salmon at lower prices," said Belov. "Then when the wild salmon comes back they'll say, 'But look, I can get it for $4 per pound. Why would I want that wild stuff?'"
Speakers at SalmonAid will discuss such subjects as water management and the economic importance of salmon fishing to West Coast communities. Live music performances on two stages — emceed by KFOG's Big Rick Stuart — will include Les Claypool and some 20 other artists. Certified "salmon safe" wines and Sierra Nevada beer will be served along with the food. But most importantly, says Hudson, SalmonAid will bring together fishing communities and environmental organizations that have not always gotten along.
"Other years, recreational, tribal, and commercial fishermen have fought and bickered over the allocation of the fish and who gets how many."
This year no one will get any, and these parties have realized that if Californians don't act now, boycotting farmed salmon while encouraging legislators to reconsider water management priorities, we may find ourselves with no salmon left to fight over, and those who love Chinook salmon well know that it's a fight worth having.
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