Salmon Trouble: People Just Don’t Get It

An article by Dennis Cuff in the Contra Costa Times today reports that a federal panel is considering closing the salmon fishing season this year from Monterey to northern Oregon in order to protect Klamath river salmon.

The salmon are not the focus of the story, though they do get some mention.

Because Klamath salmon mix in the ocean with salmon from other rivers, regulators say they need to restrict fishing along 700 miles of coastline to protect the Klamath salmon.
Experts expect healthy salmon runs on the Sacramento River this year but a low run on the Klamath for a third consecutive year.
In defense, a federal fishing regulators say they are trying to protect a public resource. They said they want to bring back Klamath salmon before they become threatened or endangered.
The Klamath River suffers from interconnected problems of plant water quality, low flows, old hydroelectric dams that block fish migration and parasites that kill baby fish.

The article spouts generalities about “experts”, “regulators”, and “federal panels” without ever bothering to get a statement from any specific person. Contrast that with Cuff’s central figures in the story, people associated with the fishing industry. This is the story lead:

Duncan MacLean has weathered stormy seas, lean years and competition from fish farms to stay afloat in the West Coast’s shrinking commercial salmon business for 30 years.
Nature’s bounty has been good to him.
But now he fears the government’s failure to manage a river environment 600 miles away could put him and other California salmon fishermen out of business.

Here’s something we all need to know about MacLean:

“If I don’t fish for a season, I’m dead. I’m history,” McLean said this week aboard his fishing boat, berthed in Pillar Point harbor nestled in the moon-shaped bay 20 miles south of San Francisco.

The only others quoted in the article were Peggy Beckett, a party boat trip arranger and former salmon boat captain, and Yogi Adams, a charter fishing boat owner.

Adams gave this view of things:

“You’ve got to fix the problem where it occurs,” he said, “rather than take it out on fishermen 500 miles away.”

Hello? Earth to Adams: what you do has an effect on what happens 500 miles away. Whyever should you expect a breakdown in symmetry on that score? If you are busy collecting the biggest salmon you can find, including ones that would otherwise attempt to reproduce 500 miles away up the Klamath River, you obviously are part of the equation in how the fishery gets managed.

Cuff returns to MacLean to finish off the article.

MacLean is hopeful for a solution. He said federal regulators can provide enough water for fish and farmers if they do a smarter job of timing water releases and getting farmers to conserve supplies.
“If you approach this from an ecosystem perspective, you can bring the salmon run back,” MacLean said. “If we use water wisely, there is enough to go around.”

When I first read the final part of the article, I thought, erroneously, that Cuff had come up with an expert with an optimistic view of the situation. Then I looked earlier in the article to remind myself of who this MacLean fellow was. While MacLean is handy with buzzphrases like “ecosystem perspective”, the message has less to do with wildlife management than with justifying his continued exploitation of a resource for personal gain, without being bothered by things that happen elsewhere. MacLean is not established as having a background in ecology, nor in wildlife management, nor even in hydrology and water management. What we know, though, is that MacLean runs a salmon fishing boat and has a major economic interest in this particular aspect of regulation.

It’s possible that MacLean is right about the situation being due to mismanagement at the federal level. After all, federal wildlife and fisheries policy has long been dominated by the view that whatever regulation is applied should cause as little short-term inconvenience as possible to various industries, like the fishing industry, no matter what the data show. Well, we are coming down to the hard nubbin now, when pandering to an industry on short-term inconvenience or even hardship cannot fail to have long-term effects. If the salmon run on a whole river system fails, what then? That’s not reversible with the sort of budget fisheries management people get, and possibly not reversible with any conceivable budget at all. So MacLean and others perhaps can go on with business as usual if the salmon season proceeds without interruption for another year, maybe several. Maybe Pollyanna is for once right, and everything will work out just peachy without causing any discomfort, at least not to the people who get quoted in Contra Costa Times articles. But maybe, just maybe, the nameless unquoted experts and regulators have some rational basis for proposing closing the season, and maybe, just maybe, it will help keep the Klamath River salmon population ekeing out a living until some of the continuing concerns about dams and water management can be worked out.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.