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Congress and the White House battle over the fate of salmon

California’s salmon populations have plummeted over the past century thanks primarily to dam construction, water diversions, and pollution from mining, logging, road construction and excessive livestock grazing. The long-term prospects for California’s salmon are very poor unless strong, decisive actions are taken to restore and improve habitat.

Instead, the Trump administration announced in October that it would increase water diversions for agriculture from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These diversions could further endanger some of California’s most imperiled salmon stocks.

Some members of Congress are fighting back. For example, also in October, Representative Jared Huffman from California’s 2nd Congressional District introduced the “Salmon Focused Investments in Sustainable Habitats (FISH) Act” that would give the federal government eight months to issue a list of “salmon conservation areas.” The very best remaining habitat would be designated as “salmon strongholds.” Native American tribes, conservation groups and even members of the public will be given three months to suggest areas for salmon conservation area designation. Within these salmon conservation areas, a high-priority would be given to restoring areas damaged by road construction and to removing physical barriers to fish migration such as poorly-designed culverts. The federal government would also be required to only conduct management activities on public lands that have “the least adverse impact” on the salmon conservation areas. Grants would be made available to restore salmon habitat in the conservation areas (especially the salmon strongholds) through 2025.


Smith River Salmon
Smith River Salmon

Mr. Huffman is the Chair of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife and Co-Chair of the Congressional Wild Salmon Caucus. He noted in a press statement that “Salmon have great ecological, cultural, and economic importance, and are a symbol of the American West. This is certainly the case for the fisheries and communities in my district, including many tribes that have relied on salmon since time immemorial. The Salmon FISH Act will protect and restore the outstanding salmon habitats that still remain so that they can not only support thriving wild salmon, but also the communities and economies that depend on them.”

Salmon live in the ocean but return to freshwater streams to spawn. California has four types of salmon: Chinook, coho, pink, and chum. The latter two are only rarely found here, primarily in the Smith River, Klamath River and South Fork Trinity River. According to the fisheries conservation group CalTrout, the species with the largest numbers is Chinook, which has eight genetically distinct populations, including:

• Coastal, which includes the Eel River and other North Coast streams (between 5,000-20,000 fish return every year)
• Central Valley fall-run, which includes the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River systems (annual runs have averaged around 150,000 fish)
• Central Valley late fall-run (roughly 21,000 fish return annually)
• Central Valley spring-run (between 3,000-30,000 fish return every year)
• Sacramento River winter-run (there were only 3,500 fish in 2015)
• Southern Oregon/Northern California coast in the Smith River watershed (15,000-20,000 adults return to spawn annually)
• Klamath-Trinity fall-run (annual runs have averaged around 150,000 fish)
• Klamath-Trinity spring-run (an average of less than 2,000 adults return annually over the last decade)

The second largest population of salmon in California is coho salmon. Coho spawn in rivers from the Smith River in Del Norte County in the north to the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz County in the south. Population estimates vary widely, but both the federal and state governments consider coho profoundly imperiled and in need of vigorous restoration efforts.

To learn more about Rep. Huffman’s Salmon Focused Investments in Sustainable Habitats (FISH) Act, you can read his press release.