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Why California’s Salmon Season Was Canceled

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Kenny Belov, co-owner of 2xSea, cuts a piece of salmon (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

For the first time since 2009, there is no salmon fishing season in California. This decision has hit fishers, coastal towns, and Native communities hard.

But it also wasn’t inevitable. KQED climate and science reporter Danielle Venton explains how the state’s choices around water management played a major role.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to The Bay. Local News to keep you rooted. Something is missing from the ocean this summer as a result of declining populations. Fisheries regulators have made a drastic decision to cancel salmon fishing season.

Sarah Bates: There’s a huge, conspicuous absence not only on the barbecue. There’s an absence in my fish hold. There’s an absence on the docks in San Francisco. There’s an absence in our markets, because there’s no fish in the ocean.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Commercial fishers who rely on the salmon to make their living are struggling to get by.

John McManus: Some people will be able to make a little bit of money targeting other species, but they’re going to lose a significant portion of their annual income.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And it’s not just commercial fishers who are feeling this. It’s the entire ecosystem of the state and California’s native tribes who’ve relied on the health of the salmon for generations.

Jason Jackson-Reed: We believe as Hupa peopl, that our social well-being and our physical our cultural, our spiritual well-being, it all runs parallel to the salmon.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, we’re going to talk with KQED reporter Danielle Vinton about what happened to the salmon and how decisions by the state helped bring us here. Stay with us.

Danielle Venton: I come from a family of fisher folk. I think I knew how to Filet-O-Fish before I knew how to ride a bike.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Danielle Venton is a science and climate reporter for KQED.

Danielle Venton: My dad was a big recreational fisherman and even tried commercial fishing for one year. When my cousin got married for the dinner, my dad and uncle and cousins would just go out day after day, catching their limit until we had enough salmon to barbecue for 200 people. You know, it’s a really cool kind of local thing, like a really cool thing to do, but that wouldn’t be possible this year. Obviously.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Let’s dive into it, Danielle. What exactly, I guess, is the state of the salmon season this year?

Danielle Venton: Well, unfortunately, there is no salmon season. Usually the commercial season runs from May to October, so we should be right in the middle of it. Recreational season starts a little earlier than that and both are closed this year. There is no locally fresh caught salmon to be had. This is an industry that is valued at around $500 million. It’s also restaurants, tackle shops, private fishing guides, campgrounds. You know, there’s this whole tourism industry that is centered around California’s salmon season, and that’s dried up this year. The rules for tribal people are different because they’re different nations. So there is some tribal take allowed in rivers, but they are very much affected when salmon numbers are in decline. This is very abnormal. And the last time something like this happened was in 2008 and nine, and I don’t believe it had ever happened before that. Part of that reason is that we have rules and policies that are supposed to prevent exactly this kind of thing. I mean, this is a failure.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Okay, before we get into the policy stuff, I want to understand the basics when it comes to salmon. How would you describe the life cycle of these fish? Like what is supposed to happen?

Danielle Venton: Salmon are these strange kind of semi magical creatures. Salman are born in natal rivers and streams and in nests called reds. They hatch and they begin migrating downstream, even though they’ve been spent their entire life in a freshwater habitat. They’re able to change and live in a saltwater habitat. And they feed out in the ocean and fatten up their food for whales and all of us. And then they reach maturity and they feel the call of home and they return to the same rivers and streams that they were born in. Swim back up there and they spawn. The female like wiggles around in the gravel, builds a nest, lays her eggs. Male fish fertilize them, and then their bodies give out and they then feed their natural surroundings. You know, this is very important way where nutrients get transferred from the ocean back up into the streams. These are fish that kind of define an ecosystem.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And here’s where humans come in. We decide how much water from our dams should go to the rivers where the seminar versus to irrigators like farms and agriculture. So what happened this time? Well, it starts a few years ago during a bad drought year when salmon didn’t get the water they needed.

Danielle Venton: The fish that should be in the ocean right now waiting to be caught in on our dinner plate were born in their birth streams back in the fall of 2020. 2020 was a drought year. 2019 was a really wet year. And so water managers had delivered a lot of water to irrigators in 2019. They didn’t save it in reservoirs and as we went into 2020, there wasn’t a lot of water in the dams. There was a case of kind of climate whiplash and that water is needed to be released into the river to maintain kind of minimum flows like the amount of water that’s flowing down and to maintain temperatures. These fish like cool, clean flowing water. And so as we went into 2020, there wasn’t a lot of water to be released into these dams and some of the nests and that were born that year. They dried up and a lot of the fish that were born kind of cooked to death because conditions were just so warm.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That’s a chilling, chilling image, like these eggs being cooked. Was this inevitable? I mean, climate change is happening, right?

Danielle Venton: So climate change is definitely happening and puts more stress on the rivers. But also, California has made a lot of policy decisions that pushed us in this direction.

Jon Rosenfield Yeah, it’s inextricably linked to state and federal water policies.

Danielle Venton: So, someone who pays really close attention to this is Jon Rosenfield, and he’s the senior scientist with the San Francisco Baykeeper. He points to inaction on part of the state as leading to this.

Jon Rosenfield We have increasingly good scientific evidence that that journey, the success of that journey, is really dependent on the flow and in rivers when the fish are trying to migrate. The lower the flow, the less they survive. And that flow in the rivers is also determined by state and federal water management policies.

Danielle Venton: So in California, we have these kind of sets of rules that govern how water should work in the state. And what is supposed to happen is that they are meant to be reevaluated and updated if needed every three years. In reality, the plan controlling what happens in the Sacramento Delta. It dates from 1995. It’s been updated here and there, but it is really awaiting a big overhaul. In 2018, the Jerry Brown administration tried to update part of those rules. He allowed his water agency to kind of take, you know, exert some control in this area. They were coming up with a new plan to increase the flows and to really improve conditions in those rivers. It was going to mean less water for irrigators. Irrigators were really upset. But it was seen as a plan that was very effective for improving ecosystem health and, you know, advocating on behalf of the fish and on behalf of communities that live along these rivers that kind of want to enjoy clean, flowing water. But 2018 was also the year that Governor Newsom was elected. And before they could go into effect, he basically put a chill on that and said, we’re just going to pause and we’re not going to do that right now.

Jon Rosenfield Governor Newsom and throughout his administration, starting on election night, has actively blocked update of those water quality standards.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Why has governor, after governor failed to update these rules, which seem really important, especially when water just increasingly seems to be this sort of like finite resource and is we have to make decisions about where that water goes, right?

Danielle Venton: I mean, this is not a politically winning issue. It’s very difficult. You have different sides that have different values. It’s a hard it’s a hard issue. I mean, people talk about, you know, these California water wars. This is something that’s been going on for decades and it’s still going on. And, you know, to some people’s mind, they just don’t feel winnable. I mean, agriculture is a very big political player in our state, and a lot of money can be made in agriculture. They have very old claims on water and there is a lot of political power behind, you know, big agribusiness interests. And Governor, after governor and you know, many people believe Newsom in particular is very loathe to do anything to upset them.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Governor Newsom has gotten a lot of heat for this. How has he responded to allegations that their policy decisions are to blame for what’s happened to the salmon this year?

Danielle Venton: Governor Newsom has pushed away the idea of any responsibility for this.

Gavin Newsom: I take this issue seriously. I’ll take a backseat to no governor in the United States of America in terms of my environmental stewardship and passion.

Danielle Venton: He was asked about this at a press conference this spring. And, you know, his response was pretty striking.

Gavin Newsom: What what occurs? The salmon that happened three years ago. So anyone who suggests otherwise is being purposely misleading or a knowingly misleading.

Danielle Venton: I basically I couldn’t possibly have had any effect on that. You know, and he he has been governor for four and a half years.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It seems like everyone affected agrees that something went wrong. And the governor clearly thinks he has nothing to do with it. But, I mean, going back to these rules, Danielle, they haven’t been updated in decades. So what is the state’s vision here?

Danielle Venton: So the state has put its emphasis behind what are called voluntary agreements, and these are non regulatory frameworks. The state says that these are voluntary agreements are a better approach because if everyone can kind of get the part that they really care about, then maybe we can avoid lawsuits. That’s part of why these plans are so hard to update because they are tied up in litigation for years and years and years and years. Tribes and conservation groups and environmental justice groups say that these agreements are completely unacceptable because they cut them out of the decision making process when the real important decisions are being made and that the state has only asked for feedback on their voluntary agreements after, you know, they were largely hashed out. And they say that’s totally unacceptable. And the big emphasis of these voluntary agreements are restoring habitat, which is great, but it seems a big emphasis of these agreements is not putting more water in the rivers and allowing more water to flow. And, you know, fish can have all the habitat they want, but if there’s not water in the river, they’re not going to make it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It sounds like you’re saying it’s just kind of impossible at this point to really think that we can satisfy everyone when it comes to water, when there isn’t enough of it, and someone has to make that hard decision.

Danielle Venton: Yeah, but I would say like there is definitely enough water for everyone to have drinking water for everyone to wash their dishes and have showers and stuff. I mean, the point where this gets really difficult is like, can we grow hundreds of thousands of acres of nut trees that are exported around the world and that are extremely profitable and are extremely thirsty crops? We’re not talking about subsistence agriculture here. We’re not talking about growing the food that we’re going to survive on. You know, to hear some people at the state level talk, you would think that like if we all just sit together at the same table and put our heads together and hash it out, we can come up with some compromise where everyone can get their needs and wants met. And I’m not sure that that’s realistic, especially in difficult dry years if salmon are going to get the amount of water that they need to support them. We are not also going to be able to support the number of acres that are currently planted. Something is going to give.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, what’s next here, Danielle? Like, what are these communities, these fissures, these tribes? What are they pushing for now?

Danielle Venton: They’re pushing for the state to take more action. They’re pushing for a seat at the table. I recently attended a rally in Sacramento on the Capitol steps where, you know, this broad coalition came together to try to get the attention of lawmakers. There’s also a group that feels so neglected by the state that they are petitioning the Environmental Protection Agents Agency, a federal agency, to step in and enforce the Clean Water Act. They say that’s how dire it is and that the state is not taking care of their needs and that that is a violation of their civil rights. And the last I heard, the EPA was kind of looking at this issue and deciding if they had the authority to step in.

Jason Jackson-Reed: And if the salmon aren’t doing good, we’re not doing good.

Danielle Venton: So I spoke with a man, Jason Jackson-Reed, who’s a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

Jason Jackson-Reed: Our physical, our cultural, our spiritual well-being, it all runs parallel to the salmon.

Danielle Venton: And he was there at the rally with his one year, one month old son cradled in a carrier, very much thinking about the next generation. He said that this story is not going to change until native people start having a role in making management decisions.

Jason Jackson-Reed: It’s not going to change until, you know, the natives start writing the narrative and we start reading, digitizing, you know, a management.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: We’ve been talking about salmon. And I think it’s fair to say that most people interact with salmon when they eat it. But beyond that, why should we all have a stake in having a healthy salmon season.

Danielle Venton: When salmon are doing well, the environment is doing well, and that’s an environment that supports us all and that we all enjoy. It is part of the natural heritage of the state. And supporting salmon also supports the native people who were the original caretakers of this land. A lot of people talk about this issue in these very simple terms, this very simple dichotomy of fish versus farms. And of course, we support farms and we need food. But salmon are also food, and a healthy salmon run means a healthy environment. Salmon. And to simplify it. Almond trees are not equivalent species. You know, one is integral to California environment, the people of California. And one is an export crop that is profitable and that is optional to grow. Each of us can decide where our values lie within that. But, you know, for thinking about the long term future, our life is getting better. Our children’s life is going to be better if we do take care of rivers and streams and the health of our salmon.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Danielle, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

Danielle Venton: Thank you so much for having me, Ericka.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Governor Newsom has requested federal disaster relief money for commercial fishers impacted by the canceled salmon season. Danielle says that money is believed to be on its way, but it’s not here yet. Meanwhile, Danielle says fishers that she’s spoken with have told her they’d much rather fish than have to rely on these funds. That was Danielle Venton, a science and climate reporter for KQED. At the top of this episode, you also heard from Sarah Bates, a commercial fisher. John McManus with the Golden State Salmon Association. And Jason Jackson Reed, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. This 45-minute conversation with Danielle was cut down and edited by our senior editor, Alan Montecillo. Maria Esquinca is our producer. She scored this episode and added all the tape. The rest of our team here at KQED includes Jen Chien. Our director of podcasts, Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager. César Saldaña, our podcast engagement producer. And Holly Kernan, our chief content officer. The Bay is a production of a member supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevara. Thank you so much for listening. From all of us here at The Bay, Peace.

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