The Future of Salmon: Can They Be Saved?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on print
salmon fisherman duncan macclean
Above: Duncan MacLean, who’s been fishing for 40 years, got his start going out on boats with the Italian fisherman who used to occupy most of the slips at the Hyde Street Pier. Photo: Angela DeCenzo

On a cold but sunbaked September morning in San Francisco, Duncan MacLean motors his 39-foot salvaged boat to and fro beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not necessarily the best place to fish, but once a year he likes to do this, stopping short of the open ocean off the edge of Tiburon, where he can steer into the incoming current at just the right speed so the boat stays still. The water sweeps beneath him, pulling four baited lines with it, as if he were actually moving. It’s a luxury to fish this way, to stand on deck and feel the sun without worrying about crashing into things.

“Most people don’t even know you can catch salmon inside the bridge,” he says. “But you can, all day.”

After 40 years on the water, MacLean seems to know a lot of things that most people don’t know. As a salmon troller, he’s tied to a species whose survival depends a little on climate and a lot on politics, and with so much time to think about it, he’s got a pretty good idea whose fault it is that 20 years ago he could pull up 525 salmon in a single day but this summer, a three-salmon day is a good one.

The obvious culprit is the drought, but less conspicuously at fault is the sphinx-like web of regulations and sordid backroom deals that have left California’s water rights in the hands of old and righteous agribusiness royalty. Eco-conscious finger waggers like to target Stewart and Lynda Resnick, whose $4.2 billion nut and produce empire in the Central Valley, the second-largest produce enterprise in the country, drinks up more water some years than every home in Los Angeles and San Francisco combined (swimming pools included). The state handed control of the Kern Water Bank over to the Resnicks and other farmers in 1995 in exchange for their junior water rights in a deal behind closed doors. The Resnicks own a majority stake, and some have argued that the deal was unconstitutional. Lawsuits are pending.

The water bank is California’s largest underground reservoir and it’s the reason why in the midst of California’s worst-ever recorded drought, the Resnicks’ 70,000-acre corner of Kern County is a persistent shock of verdant green strangled by desiccated, yellowing land. The reservoir refills itself naturally in wet years, but during a drought it is replenished with water pumped in from the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The delta water is salmon habitat, and the pumping itself kills smelt, one of salmon’s primary food sources. There are other ways the pumps affect fisheries, but for that full story you’re better off diving into environmental impact reports. It’s also worth noting the Resnicks are notoriously cozy with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

And then, of course, there are the dams. California’s salmon are divided into four genetically variant groups that spawn in different spots in the Sacramento–San Joaquin river system at different times of the year, and two of these runs—one returning to the river in winter and one in spring—are endangered. The “winter run” Chinook (or King) used to make a heroic 300-mile journey upriver to a spawning spot in the mainstem headwaters before the construction of Shasta Dam cut off 90% of their spawning habitat in 1945. Now, a few federal hatcheries are responsible for mitigating that impact, but MacLean tells me they’re scaling back their responsibilities all the time, and from the sound of it, are pretty bad at math.

To make matters worse, the dam operators control the size and temperature of the water they release downstream over the wild salmon that still try to spawn there. Recently, it seems, they’ve been misfiring. Salmon eggs can’t survive in water over 56°F, and in 2014 and 2015, 95% of the winter and late fall run’s eggs and fry were killed by 76°F flows released by Shasta Dam. These are the fish that would be coming back to spawn this time of year, the ones that MacLean isn’t catching. A report from the Department of Fish and Wildlife blames that warm water—20° above what a salmon egg can survive—on poor “temperature management” at Shasta Dam.

The relationships between the Sacramento–San Joaquin dams and the fisheries they affect are tense for a great number of reasons, including a lack of fish ladders, which they’ve been heavily criticized for not having, although MacLean contends that the nitrogen levels from decomposing flora in Shasta Lake would kill any salmon that got that far anyway. Others have said that a fish ladder up all 600 feet of Shasta Dam would be too big for any fish.

As if it couldn’t get more discouraging, the House of Representatives passed a bill in July called HR-23 that would scale back protections for salmon and water diversion regulations. The bill was introduced by Rep. David Valadeo, who, along with the chair of the intelligence committee, Rep. Devon Nunes, and House Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, is a Central Valley native with ties to the commercial agricultural community, the thirstiest in the state. If anyone in the government is looking out for salmon, it’s not them.

And then, of course, there are the tunnels. Gov. Jerry Brown’s decade-long controversial undertaking to replace old canals with tunnels to pipe water from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley has met formidable resistance, and in September hit a big setback when the largely agricultural Westland Water District that was partly on the hook to help pay for the $17 billion pair of 40-foot-diameter, 35-mile-long tunnels balked at the cost.

Tunnels of that size are capable of diverting more than half of the Sacramento River at a single time, which many groups, including nonprofit Restore the Delta, maintain would have a major negative impact on life in the delta. Taking away the delta’s primary source of freshwater would leave the system with the polluted tailwater of the San Joaquin River—a caustic cocktail of pesticides and industrial farm runoff that would contaminate and potentially kill entire fisheries, including salmon. Ocean water would intrude on the delta, bumping up salinity levels, killing off species that thrive in a freshwater haven, like baby salmon, and imperiling the possibility of farming.

“But it’s a wonderful investment opportunity for private partners. The tunnels will do a great job for people’s 401(k)s,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the co-founder and executive director of Restore the Delta. “It’s a project for the 2%. People want to make money through controlling water in California, and construction crews that get tons of jobs. The people who will get the water are Big Ag, business groups and metro districts who want to be able to sell water for growth. My belief at this time is that the corruption tied to this project is rampant.” Barrigan-Parrilla also points to what she says is the understated and under investigated impact of 14 years of construction.

And this is the thing about salmon. There is literally no way, it seems, to talk about Californian salmon without ending up staring at the hairball of apparent corruption and byzantine laws that continue to consolidate power on the side of the Haves. This, apparently, is what we talk about when we talk about salmon: power. And in California, one part water equals one part power.

As far as salmon go, the odds don’t sound good to me. But those who fight for them, whether as a proxy for restoring the health of the whole Bay-Delta system or just for the love of salmon, feel differently.

“Salmon have literally one mission in life: to procreate. And they’ll be damned if they don’t do it,” says MacLean. He means that salmon could adapt, as they have throughout time, spreading through different river systems to spawn when one is unavailable. And humans could conceivably repopulate the winter run, but unless the winter run is ever able to make it back to their natural spawning ground in the Sierra runoff, they’ll lose what makes them naturally unique. They will, contends MacLean, get hybridized or assimilated into the other runs, if those survive.

It’s a little funny, listening to someone speak so lovingly about a species he kills for living. In fact, the whole paradox of a hunter-conservationist lingers like a gremlin stuck to the side of the boat, the whole time I’m listening to MacLean. When I ask, he tells me not to be fooled.

“Every fisherman has a patch of green on him somewhere. He just hides it well.”

Indeed, MacLean doesn’t talk about saving the salmon as saving his livelihood. He alludes to a grand natural cycle of life that depends on a beautifully intricate biological symphony: the precise time of a salmon’s life between a fingerling and a smolt when it imprints its birthplace in its whisper of a brain; the rainfall washing silvery juveniles from the delta to the sea, where they more or less disappear for a year or two; the colder winds rushing in from the sea during the summer, creating an upwelling of blooming phytoplankton that feed the krill that feed the baby salmon just as they enter the ocean, like a welcoming buffet. The adult salmon enjoy it too, on their way back to spawn. Sometimes, humans catch those salmon, but not today.

Today, MacLean is only out on the water because the price of salmon is high—$30 a pound, which nets $10 on the pound for him. That, and a pesky journalist wanted to go fishing. In a season like this one, times are rough, but MacLean has seen it before. In 2008 and 2009, the season was canceled altogether due to so few salmon. In those leans years, he’ll catch rockfish or halibut, something to cover his bases. Typically, he takes four days at a time out on the water, and might not catch anything until the last day.

I begin to wonder what kind of deep faith keeps someone on the water alone for so long with no luck. Is there something just so sublime about the great, salty solitude of it all? Maybe. But MacLean chalks it up to a gambler’s hope that he “just might catch something.”

Commercial fishing has changed quite a bit in the 40 years he’s been at it. MacLean first went fishing as an art major in college, on a friend’s boat he’d been filching woodshop tools to repair. A fishhook caught his thumb and ripped the nail in half that day, leaving a scar he still rubs fondly when he talks about quitting school immediately and buying an old wooden lifeboat. It was an easy way to make money, and he figured it out from scratch. But you can’t get started like that anymore, he says.

“Nowadays, everyone’s a pot farmer first. It’s the only way you can make enough money to buy a boat.”

He doesn’t take a deckhand because good deckhands are hard to find, he says, which may or may not be related to something else he says, which is that “new millennials don’t understand the concept of manual labor.” Time passes slowly on the boat, and I don’t even see a clock on board. He knows when to go out because the sun is coming up, and when to go in because it’s getting dark.

MacLean speaks gently, but his eyes flicker and his volume doubles when his sense of justice is inflamed, which it often is when he talks about water rights or money in the wrong hands.

He likes to get into the nitty-gritty of it all—how many fish the hatcheries should really release, how the river- pumping technology kills life in the water—but when the stats get stale, things tend to take an existential turn.

“If Stewart [Resnick] never made another dime in his life, he couldn’t even spend what he already has. So what’s the point?” I tell him I worry about how sitting with that for days at a time could drive someone mad. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor about it, otherwise it will actually drive you crazy,” he says.

As the former trolling representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, MacLean has spent most of his efforts trying to influence the way the salmon fishery is managed. The key, he says, is partly in regulating sport fishing as tightly as commercial fishing, and privatizing hatcheries and saddling them with performance standards. As is, a hatchery’s responsibility ends when it releases its quota of fish, not when those fish get caught. So when those little salmon get trucked to the ocean, which is how they are transported these days, and the striped bass that have learned the sound of the pump gather around like a gnashing pit of piranhas to catch the fish as they hit the water, it makes no difference to the government.

john mcmanu golden gate salmon association
Above:  John McManus was a producer for CNN in a former life, a fact that makes him especially media savvy in promoting the plight of the salmon and the water issues that are so intertwined with the survival of the species.

There are others, too, who’ve taken up the fight against the staggering powers against them, bolstered by the same love of something that bonds them to the natural world and its cycles. One of those people is John McManus, the executive director and cofounder of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. The GGSA is a conservation-focused coalition that works to protect and restore habitats that produce salmon, including the Central Valley rivers that feed into the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

McManus worked for Earth Justice for 11 years, fighting water diversion projects in the Central Valley during the Bush-Cheney years. GGSA gets involved in policy making, and habitually files lawsuits when entities like the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Shasta Dam, don’t do what they’re supposed to.

The GGSA works on restoring habitat in the delta by pressuring the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allocate funds for projects like restoring channels that provide refuge for baby salmon, and pushing the state to release the first hatchery protocols ever. He likes to say “we have the best government that money can buy,” and the GGSA is out to force its hand a better way. Sifting through the GGSA’s list of accomplishments fortifies hope that salmon do indeed have a chance.

The GGSA is apparently a loud and impactful voice when it wants to be, but McManus has no illusions about what they’re up against. If HR-23 passes the Senate, and he has no idea if it will, it would be “game over for salmon.”

Recently, McManus hosted a cohort of San Francisco chefs and journalists, myself included, on the salmon charter boat belonging to a board member of the GGSA. I wondered, against the backdrop of the giant convoluted struggle to secure a future for salmon, how taking a few chefs out for beers and salmon fishing could possibly make a difference, but McManus points to the heart.

“You won’t fight for what you don’t know, and you can’t love something until you know it. All kinds of people don’t even know we have salmon in California, and public education is a step towards public appreciation for the great natural heritage we enjoy in this state.”

Barrigan-Parrilla also speaks of cherishing heritage, and the disadvantage of not being seen. Her nonprofit Restore the Delta wants to “save the SF Bay Delta estuary for future generations by fighting to protect water quality and quantity,” she says. Lately, this means fighting the tunnels, but that’s not all she wants to be remembered for. The first thing she is sure to tell me is that the delta is a rich, dynamic system filled with organic farmers and charm. “It’s a hidden gem,” she says.

“We have some of the best wine production in California at the north end of the delta, and farmers growing all the diversified crops. There’s potatoes and asparagus, people making olive oil and pear cider going to market, and people growing free-range beef cattle on the west end. There are absolute treasures here.”

Beyond the tunnels, the second greatest threat to the delta will be inadequate freshwater flows, and sea level rise that could bury small islands in the river system. But for now, the struggle remains against what sounds like a sub-apocalyptic threat to the health of the delta.

“This is where it becomes tragic. In Flint [Michigan], they took away the nice Great Lakes water and left them with degraded Flint [River] water. We don’t have a corrosion problem like them, but the San Joaquin has tailwater from industrial growers. We get the polluted water, we’ll kill off fisheries and contaminate fisheries, contaminate drinking supplies, the drinking and groundwater will be degraded, and of course, we’ll have saltwater intrusion limiting what people can grow at the northern end.”

And when the salmon lose their habitat and perish, what will happen to the species like the South Puget Sound orca, who are genetically programmed to eat them?

“Everything is at stake for the fishery. Contrary to what the state is touting, their environmental impact report shows that the salmon fishery will do worse with the delta tunnels than if we were going to do nothing. That’s the big lie: that the tunnels are good for the fishery. That is definitely not the case.”

So, if money is behind a lie, how do you steal the microphone?

“You just keep going. It doesn’t matter how much they have or how much they lie, we just keep telling the truth, and keep working with people throughout the state, and keep getting our story out there.”

Restore the Delta has their work cut out for them, and it was a small victory when the Westland Water District backed down from supporting the tunnels, but there is so much more work to do.

MacLean will be out on the water, waiting for all of the too-young salmon he threw back this season to come back as adults next year. He’ll be playing the thorn in the side of regulating bodies, “calling their bullshit.”

“I’m out here as a servant for the people, for everyone else who loves salmon who can’t be on this boat fishing themselves,” he says. As for his livelihood, he learned long ago to surrender to the vagaries of a life that profits from natural systems that are accountable to no one but themselves.

“Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, at the end of the day you’ve still got no money in the bank. That’s just the way it is.”

And still I wonder about everyone else sitting at the table looking for a slice of the water rights pie—the environmental groups, some of them so meagerly funded—and how they’ll stand up to a government that is looking increasingly antagonistic.

“It’s a David-and-Goliath fight,” says Barrigan-Parrilla, “but it only took David one rock.”


Want more Edible San Francisco stories? Then like us on Facebook to stay connected to our daily updates.

The Future of Salmon was originally published in the Fall issue © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Illustrations © 2016 Dan Bransfield. Photos © Angela DeCenzo