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Close to Home: Thoughts on drought and the beginning of salmon fishing season

This is the most exciting time of year for salmon fishermen. California’s sport fishing season opens on Saturday, followed by the commercial fishing season beginning on May 1. Along the coast, from Santa Barbara and San Francisco to Bodega Bay and southern Oregon, fishing boats are being painted, engines overhauled and galleys filled. The men and women who make their living fishing for salmon work long hours and spend days at sea. And they love their jobs.

Predictions are for a good - not a great - season. California fishermen saw a similar season last year. But 2015 is shaping up to be another drought year. Droughts are bad for salmon - and salmon fishermen. Baby salmon migrating to sea this spring faced a lethal combination of low river flows and high temperatures. Impacts on the fishing community reflect the life history of salmon.

Chinook (king) salmon live for three years. So some of the fish that survived the dry winter of 2014-15 will be caught by fishermen in 2017. (The fishing is carefully regulated to allow enough adults to return to spawn each year.)

The impacts of drought aren’t theoretical. Because of a combination of drought, poor ocean conditions and irresponsibly high water diversions, California’s salmon industry was completely shut down in 2008 and 2009 for the first time in state history. For fishermen and others who depend on this fishery, that shut down was a disaster - one they don’t want to repeat.

Just as the fishing industry can be harmed by a lack of storms sweeping in from the Pacific, it also can be harmed by storm clouds in Washington. A group of powerful Central Valley agribusiness interests tried last year - and plan to try again this year - to pass legislation in Congress to gut protections for salmon runs.

They claim environmental protections are reducing water supplies for cities and shutting down farms. The facts, however, show the very real water shortages being felt by some farms and cities are caused by drought, not by environmental laws that protect salmon and other fish.

A bill blocking fish protections wouldn’t end water storages, but it would hit salmon hard, as well as the thousands of California families who rely on salmon for their livelihoods.

Cities can recycle water. Farmers can conserve. But fish have no choice. Their survival depends on the water we leave in our rivers - particularly during droughts. A few dry years, combined with bad water management, would harm the salmon industry for years to come, costing the jobs of thousands of fishermen, fish processors, tackle manufacturers, harbor operators, bait shop owners and employees and more.

We often hear about the connection between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. No one lives that connection like salmon fishing men and women. They are among the few Americans who harvest healthy, wild foods for the market. Their jobs depend on healthy rivers and healthy salmon runs.

So as you begin to see California salmon in grocery stores, farmers markets and on restaurant menus, remember that you can do two things to support salmon and the salmon industry. First, encourage your state and federal legislators to fight for salmon and salmon jobs. And second, buy our locally caught king salmon.

After all, one of the best ways to maintain sustainable salmon runs and the fishing industry is to enjoy this delicious part of California’s natural heritage.

Zeke Grader is the executive director and Tim Sloane is the program director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

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