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03.04.09

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Phaedra

Photograph courtesy Fish & Wildlife Service
Salmon Superheroes: Sights like this, still common in Alaska, are becoming increasingly rare in California as salmon run out of habitat.

Something Fishy

Salmon conference comes to Santa Cruz with a spotlight on climate change and puzzling population crashes.

By Traci Hukill


When the salmon geeks come to town this week for the Salmonid Restoration Federation's 27th annual conference, a few things are guaranteed: plenty of shaking of salmon scientist booty on Saturday night following the end-of-conference banquet; screenings of films from the Wild and Scenic Film Festival (including the excellent Red Gold, which played at the Banff Film Fest last Saturday night); and, through four days of workshops, field trips and plenary sessions, a concentrated group effort not to sound the doomsday alarm about California salmon.

Last fall, a dismal 66,000 Chinook salmon returned from the Pacific Ocean to the Sacramento Delta to spawn--about half of what's considered a desirable population by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. That's even less than the 87,000 spawners that returned in late 2007, prompting the agency to close the commercial season in California for the first time (it will almost certainly be closed again this year). Meanwhile, the Central California coho seems closer than ever to extinction.

Peter Moyle, a UC-Davis biologist who authored an extensive study on California's salmonids last year, says poor ocean conditions in 2005, when these fish first entered the sea, probably hurt their chances. But he adds that at least two other factors affect the Chinook. One is the overpumping of the Sacramento Delta, which confuses juvenile salmon making their way to sea. This year state and federal fisheries managers, recognizing the problem, trucked juvenile Chinooks from the rivers to the bay to improve their chances of survival.

The other issue is hatchery fish, which make up the bulk of the fall run. "So these are fish that are much more uniform in their behavior than wild run, and they're more likely to all get caught by the same episode in the ocean," Moyle says. "There's too many and they're sort of overwhelming the wild fish, and we should be marking every fish that comes out of the hatchery"--something Moyle notes is standard practice in Washington and Oregon.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. Moyle says indications are that this fall's Sacramento run will be up around the 100,000 range, and the Klamath and Trinity runs are up as well.

Another reason for hope is the fact that many Pacific Coast dams are up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Dana Stolzman, executive director of the Salmonid Restoration Federation, says the conference is hosting several sessions on dam removal and what that means for habitat restoration. Exhibit A is an agreement struck last year stipulating the removal of four dams from the Klamath starting in 2020. Though in Santa Cruz "FERC relicensing" might sound arcane, Stolzman says it's all too real in communities that depend on fishing. "When there are FERC hearings on the North Coast, hundreds of people show up," she says.

Mike Furniss, an Arcata-based hydrologist, will be discussing how climate change affects salmon survival in Friday morning's plenary session. Though terms like "climatic intensification" and "disturbance regimes" sound dire, Furniss emphasizes that conservationists already know how to deal with their ramifications. All that has changed is the likelihood of certain events, like flooding.

"We may set some new priorities as to where to go, and one would hope we'd increase our efforts, but the way they're dealt with are things we know how to do," Furniss says. "There's 50 ways to fix your salmon. There are many things we know how to do."

THE SALMONID RESTORATION CONFERENCE is Wednesday-Saturday, March 4-7, at the Civic Auditorium. For information visit www.calsalmon.org.


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