Wild salmon from the American West Coast are off the menu for now, as federal authorities have decided to prohibit salmon fishing for all of California and most of Oregon in order to aid recovery of the Chinook salmon populations. Salmon fishing in Alaska, where populations remain relatively stable, will not be affected. The ban will mean fewer fish and higher prices on restaurant menus.
For millennia, hundreds of thousands of Chinook salmon have returned to San Francisco Bay each year, heading for the Sacramento River Delta and its tributaries to spawn. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose National Marine Fisheries stewards the nation's living marine resources, five years ago some 872,700 salmon swam through the Delta.
This year, scientists estimate that fewer than 60,000 adult Chinook, far less than what is needed to sustain the population, will return. In addition, Coho salmon stocks off Washington and northern Oregon are also far below normal. The ban means that all commercial and recreational salmon fishing off the coast of California and southern Oregon will be suspended until populations recover.
The reasons for the drastic decline in the population are not entirely clear, according to Brian Gorman, public affairs officer for NOAA, but agency scientists believe that changes in ocean temperature, damming of waterways for agricultural and hydroelectric purposes, dumping of pesticides and sewage into river tributaries and the use of pumps and diversion pipes on waterways that kill the salmon have all had a degrading effect on their habitat and population. In 2004 and 2005, federal and state agencies exported record amounts of water from the Delta to urban and agricultural customers in Southern California, further reducing the freshwater available to the salmon.
When asked if she foresees the reopening of the West Coast salmon fishery in the near future, Jennifer Gilden, spokesperson for the Pacific Fishery Management Council said, "It won't be this year and it looks like next year will probably not be good either."
Laurel Marcus, executive director of the California Land Stewardship Institute's Fish Friendly Farming program, blames decades of resource mismanagement for the problem. "The decline of the salmon started decades ago, due largely to deforestation and resultant erosion," said Marcus. "For decades, we had unregulated clear cutting of North Coast forests to provide lumber for housing and we know this caused an enormous change in habitat. The damming of rivers for urban and agricultural uses, which began in the '30s, also had an enormous effect."
What does this mean to the consumer? Whitney Schubert, executive director of the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, said this year the traditional salmon bake, during which consumers down an estimated 600 pounds of salmon, will consist of Alaskan salmon only. "We have used Alaskan Salmon in the past when local supply has been low," said Schubert.
But Chef Rick Moonen, owner of Rick Moonen's RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas and an acknowledged authority on seafood sustainability, takes a more serious view of the situation. "Once the government gets involved, it's too late. There was a time not long ago when we thought the ocean was so vast that it could absorb whatever we put into it and could replenish whatever was taken from it. Now we know how wrong those assumptions were." Moonen said he will continue to serve wild Alaskan salmon at his Las Vegas restaurant, "and it's not gonna be cheap."
Despite the grim outlook, wineries in the region are doing what they can to help populations recover. Marcus' Fish Friendly Farming program has certified 85,000 acres of winery and vineyard properties in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties for adopting measures designed to restore fish habitat.
This month, Salmon-Safe, a Portland-based program, announced that it has partnered with winegrowers from 25 vineyards in the Walla Walla Basin to facilitate salmon recovery there. Participating wineries and vineyards agree to adopt measures that help to restore salmon habitat, such as reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, restoring stream banks, reducing erosion and sedimentation.