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A Toxic Dust Threatens Salmon. Can We Do Something About It?

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The Klamath River is prime habitat for coho salmon, like these juveniles, but that fish has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The Klamath River is prime habitat for coho salmon, like these juveniles, but that fish has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (Jimmy Peterson and Will Harling/Mid Klamath Watershed Council)

View the full episode transcript.

California’s salmon are still in decline — so much so that fishery managers may cancel the state’s salmon season for the second straight year. 

Lawmakers, environmental groups and tribes have identified one part of the problem: toxic dust that comes from our tires. KQED’s Ezra David Romero tells us how we can fix this problem.


Episode Transcript

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


Alan Montecillo:  I’m Alan Monticello in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. And welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. California’s salmon are still in big trouble. So much so that fishery managers might cancel salmon season for the second straight year. That would have a big impact on the fishers and tribes who rely on salmon for their livelihoods. Now, salmon are dying in large part because of how we manage our water system. But lawmakers and advocates have also identified another issue. A toxic chemical that’s used in our everyday life.

Ezra David Romero: I think that was like a moment that flabbergasted me that like, my actions are doing this. And I think that’s what separates this story from, say, other salmon stories today.

Alan Montecillo: My colleague Ezra David Romero introduces us to one fisher who’s worried about this salmon season and tells us about an effort to do something about this problem.

Ezra David Romero: Dick Ogg is the salmon fisherman who lives in bodega Bay.

Dick Ogg: My name is Dick Ogg. I own and operate the fishing vessel Karine Jean.

Ezra David Romero: He’s 71, and he’s been fishing there for something like 51 years.

Dick Ogg: I’m very passionate about maintaining and supporting the commercial and fishing industry in general.

Ezra David Romero: He’s sort of that, like, grandpa type of person who’s funny and who’s going to put you in your place and has a lot of information. And he knows salmon really well.

Dick Ogg: I’m 71 now, so, you know, I mean, I’ve been doing this for a while.

Ezra David Romero: He has this like almost spiritual view of the fish that they’re the strong intellectual creature, you know, that like, makes these long journeys from the deep oceans up through watersheds or rivers and lay their eggs up there.

Dick Ogg: And all the fish that I can think of this salmon is probably has one of the greatest spirits of them all. I mean, when they come up, they can take a look and bend it straight so that they can get away. And if you try to do that with your own fingers, you couldn’t do it. You just couldn’t do it.

Ezra David Romero: And when I asked him about, like, if these fish are getting away or there’s not enough, he’s like, I think that’s actually okay. Like the more fish that can go up the river and spawn, the better. He kind of like honors the life cycle of these fish.

Alan Montecillo: What if the past few salmon season’s been like for him, including this one?

Ezra David Romero: The past couple of years have been really tough for Dick, because last year they canceled the salmon season altogether, and their fishery managers are warning they might do that again this year because there’s just so few salmon in the ocean off the California coast, and that number has been decreasing over time. And he said the last really great year he had was back in 2011. So he hasn’t had many good years since then.

Dick Ogg: I think you need to be patient right now. It’s difficult.

Alan Montecillo: How will a lack of salmon affect him?

Ezra David Romero: I think it’s a bummer for him in two ways. First of all, you know, his livelihood depends partly on salmon. He does fish other things. But if the salmon go away and people love the salmon and serve, you know, it’s a high dollar fish. You know, that part of his livelihood, it’s essentially gone. Yes, I figure something else out. And second of all, I think just spiritually like the fish are something that he has this connection with over time.

Dick Ogg: I don’t know anyone in on the commercial in that at this point wants to go try to to fish for the minimal potential that we were offering. They would much rather the week and have a reasonable season, maybe next year.

Alan Montecillo: So Ezra, we are talking about this now because California might cancel its salmon season again. What are the chances that could happen?

Ezra David Romero: It seems like they’re pretty high. I mean, we won’t know for like a month or two if that actually goes down. But all the Fisher people I talked to for this story are saying this is what they’re hearing is going to happen, so they’re preparing for that. The perils against salmon are many. They’re dying because we’ve cut off the waterways or rivers or streams from the ocean.

Ezra David Romero: We put dams up and reservoirs that collect all of this water that cut them off from their spawning habitats that are often way up streams, right, like up a creek in an area with a small amount of water. We also have droughts that decrease water flows in the rivers that also warm up water when we have all these hot days. And that’s a an effect of human caused climate change, which is as a result of warming water as well. There’s also overfishing. There’s also people’s love for salmon.

Ezra David Romero: So we’re eating a lot more salmon than ever. So all of those things combined create a dire scenario for the salmon that Dick Ogg: loves. On top of all those factors like droughts and reservoirs, there’s something that everybody uses that’s affecting these fish. It’s a chemical in tires called 6PPD. Environmentalists are worried about it. Lawmakers are worried about it. Tribes are worried about it. And even the tire manufacturing industry is thinking about it.

Alan Montecillo: So let’s get into this chemical, which I had not heard of before. This story is called 6PPD. What is it?

Ezra David Romero: It’s this chemical that tire manufacturers put in the slurry that makes tires. It basically preserves them so they don’t wear out as fast. And it’s in every tire. As you drive your car around town or anywhere. Little pieces of your tire break off, right? They wear out. And in those pieces of tire that chemical exists, those little pieces that are on the roads. So we have these really big storms or really any storm in California which we know are intensifying because of human caused climate change.

Ezra David Romero: Those chemicals get into water, and then they flow out to the ocean, or they flow out into a river or stream. And when dissolved in that water, fish breathe that in. And then it kills them within two hours. The idea is that it thickens their blood. And fish have this brain barrier that separates their blood from their brain. But this chemical. Where’s that out? And blood floods their brain, essentially, like frying their brains.

Alan Montecillo: What do we know about how big of a problem 6PPD is for salmon?

Ezra David Romero: It’s harder to estimate, like exactly how many fish have died in California. But when we look at studies from Washington, where they’ve studied this extensively. In some of these creeks and rivers, they found that just in one waterway, up to 90% of salmon died from this. And so it can have like a huge effect. Another study showed that even if the contaminant 6PPD is diluted by like 95% of water, right, it can still kill fish. They also found this chemical in San Francisco waterways and also in Los Angeles.

Alan Montecillo: Coming up. What federal and state authorities are trying to do about six PPD. Stay with us.

Alan Montecillo: Are there efforts to ban this? Since so many people are concerned about its effects on fish and the environment?

Ezra David Romero: Yeah. Last summer, tribes from across the West Coast primarily petitioned the US EPA to, you know, have tire manufacturers stop using this chemical. And that sort of resulted in the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. That’s the agency that regulates, you know, hazardous substances across the state.

Ezra David Romero: They required the tire industry to provide them a list of alternatives. And that was due, I believe, last Friday on the 30th of March. And now that agency has about two months to think about. Is there an alternative for using this in tires that maybe won’t harm other fish or kill these fish as well?

Alan Montecillo: What do tire manufacturers think of this idea? If you know, the government is saying, hey, we might ban a chemical that you use to make your products.

Ezra David Romero: I’m sure at first they weren’t really excited that they’re going to have to change their ingredient list. It’s something that’s been on market for like 50 plus years. But when I talk to the tire industry, you know, they seem very compliant, like they want they’re going to work on this and they’re seeing the effects happening. The fish seems like they’re willing to change their ingredient list, but time will tell. And to even change that would take years, maybe decades.

Alan Montecillo: Right. Because even if this chemical were banned tomorrow, there are all these tires out there with this chemical already. So what else is being done to reduce the potential harm now?

Ezra David Romero: Well, this assemblymember from San Mateo named Dianne Patterson, introduced a bill in March to do something about this. Her idea is to rid these waterways of six PPD, and how she wants to do this is by requiring Caltrans. That’s the state’s leading transportation agency, to create five pilot projects in different ecosystems across the state, three of which are in the Bay area in San Mateo County, Sonoma and Contra Costa.

Ezra David Romero: And what they want to do is go to five areas where a highway, say, goes over a river or creek, and they want to put in these culverts, you know, which are just little canals, and then put all that water and say, like a big holding pond. And the idea is that plants and soil will clean the water of this chemical, and after the water is treated, it can go flow into the river and not kill fish.

Alan Montecillo: Could this effort be expanded beyond these five pilot projects?

Yeah. The lawmaker also is asking Caltrans to create a map of areas where salmon are in the most at risk. As part of this. So they’ll do these five projects and then they’ll get an idea of like, where else can we do this across the state to target the most at risk populations of salmon.

Alan Montecillo: So we have these kind of two ideas in tandem, right. You could ban six PPD from being used in tires, which would take a very long time. And then you also have this creative kind of green infrastructure type solution. What’s the ideal scenario here?

Ezra David Romero: I think the idea is plainly to like have salmon not die because of this chemical. Right? So that means in the near term, treating the water and in the long term banning the 6PPD use.

Alan Montecillo: I mean, based on what you’re saying. Is it fair to say there is hope to get rid of this dangerous chemical that poses such a threat to our salmon?

Ezra David Romero: All the evidence and interviews I did point to that, that this chemical could be removed. Tribes alerted the federal government, and now tire manufacturers are paying attention to it and are responsible to the state of California to do something about this. So I think there is positive momentum, but at the same time, I think it’s a really big feat. There are millions of cars on California roads, like I have a car. I don’t really want to put new tires on, I just did. But like if the tires are killing all these fish, maybe we should. So I think there’s a really big feet ahead.

Alan Montecillo: What did you learn in this story that you didn’t know before about the challenges facing Sam in our climate and our water systems?

Ezra David Romero: I quite simply didn’t know that this chemical was killing fish from my Prius tires. I drive in the mountains all the time. I go to Sonoma, I like go hiking, and I park next to creeks all the time in the tire dust from my car is killing, potentially killing the fish in that. I think that was the moment that flabbergasted me that my actions are doing this. And I think that’s what separates this story from, say, other salmon stories that are about how our water infrastructure is set up or like how we’ve built our waterways in California, or like what water managers are doing to like, decrease water flows. This is about something that we all do.

Alan Montecillo: And it also seems like, at least in this case, there could be a clear path forward to reducing or even eliminating this problem.

Ezra David Romero: Definitely. Perhaps a solution is nigh or coming up close. There’s positive momentum here, and you don’t often hear that with salmon stories.

Alan Montecillo: Ezra, thank you so much.

Ezra David Romero: Thanks for having me.

Alan Montecillo: That was Ezra David Romero, a climate reporter for KQED. This conversation was cut down by Ellie Prickett-Morgan. Dana Cronin scored this episode and added the tape. Additional production support from myself and Maria Esquinca. Music courtesy of Audio Network and Universal Production Music. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. What’s your favorite Beyonce album?


Ezra David Romero: I think Renaissance, my favorite Beyoncé song is Freakum Dress. It’s a good one. Everyone forgets about it, but, you know, we all have that dress or outfit that you wear to the club.

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