The multitudes of salmon once known by rivers like the Columbia, Sacramento and Klamath are mostly memories—victims of dams, habitat loss, water diversions and other human-caused problems. Earthjustice is working to change that. Learn about communities sustained by salmon runs and the ongoing efforts to save the imperiled species.
Jose Chi unloads Chinook salmon from fishing boats in Ft. Bragg, California. The 2013 summer run of salmon was very strong due to good ocean conditions and great river situation for juvenile fish.
Earthjustice has been using the law to improve river habitat for salmon from California to Oregon for more than a decade.
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Fishing boats crowd the tiny harbor of Ft. Bragg, California. The influx of fishermen equals a dramatic rise in sales at local restaurants, motels, supply stores and other businesses in Ft. Bragg and coastal communities like it along the West Coast that come alive when salmon fishing is good.
Together, these towns constitute a multibillion dollar fishing industry that supports hard-working families and businesses.
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Earthjustice attorney Mike Sherwood stands in the San Francisco Bay Delta. Sherwood's ground-breaking litigation has been helping salmon in the Delta for more than ten years.
Today, Earthjustice attorneys use the legal foundation that Sherwood built to take on the threats to a stable recovery of wild salmon runs—threats that were unappreciated decades ago as engineers started corralling California's free-flowing waters.
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Booneville Dam, on the Columbia River, is a powerful barrier to salmon migration. The Columbia/Snake rivers basin was the West's best salmon producer. Now, it is the most heavily dammed river system on earth.
For every one hundred salmon that attempt returning in the Columbia River basin today, only one will make it back to spawn.
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Attorney Mike Sherwood holds a piece of the Savage Rapids dam given to him after his litigation played a key role in the removal of the dam, known as the "worst salmon-killing dam on Rogue River." It was demolished on October 9, 2009, after a legal battle that lasted over a decade. People stood on the banks of the river and watched the river rush free for the first time in 88 years. "Usually we're trying to stop harmful actions from taking place," said Sherwood. "It's less often that we get a chance to undo a mistake, to take something bad out, to restore something to the way it should be. I felt hopeful for the coho salmon and steelhead that will now be able to get past the dam to their historic spawning grounds."
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Cindy Sandoval / USFWS
Fish and Wildlife Service biologists remove tubes of salmon eggs from the San Joaquin River after a month to check on the egg hatch rates at various sites.
The Sacramento/San Joaquin river system contains the second biggest salmon-producing rivers on the West Coast, but spring-run king salmon in the San Joaquin were driven to extinction when access to their spawning grounds was cut off by construction of the Friant Dam.
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John Ridilla / USFWS
A worker holds a delta smelt at a rearing facility. Earthjustice litigation has protected the smelt under the Endangered Species Act, aiding not only smelt, but salmon and rivers as a whole. Delta smelt are an indicator of the health of the Bay-Delta ecosystem, and are representative of a much larger decline in Delta fisheries, including striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and others.
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A salmon's skin reflects the afternoon light in Ft. Bragg, CA. When poet Joaquin Miller came to California during the Gold Rush, he saw salmon so plentiful at the head of the Sacramento River that the water looked like a "silver sheet."
Conditions on the river have since changed, with dams significantly reducing the amount of spawning habitat. Some dams have come down recently because of Earthjustice litigation and pressure, and water supplies have been partially restored. But, throughout the western U.S., the struggle over water continues.
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Fishermen Carl Anderson and Tom Davison [not pictured] move fast on the deck of their boat as they prepare to unload their catch in Ft. Bragg. The good fishing season of summer 2013 was thanks to a very wet season several years prior that provided plenty of flow for young salmon on their way to the ocean—as well as restrictions that kept those waters in the rivers instead of being diverted or imprisoned by a maze of dams, canals and pumps that export river water to insatiable industrial farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
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Fisherman Brian Jourdain, back from chasing great schools of the fish up the California coast, smiles as salmon are unloaded from his boat.
If state and federal officials don't operate California's rivers to benefit migrating salmon this year, fishing towns like Ft. Bragg will face a poor season in a few years and, in the worst case, see a complete closure of the fishery—an economic disaster.
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Jose Chi holds up an impressively large king salmon that was caught in the Pacific Ocean near Ft. Bragg, CA.
The struggle over water is ongoing between corporate farms and salmon advocates like Earthjustice, which stepped into the fray 25 years ago when salmon runs up and down the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington were in sharp decline due to dams, water pollution, logging and other factors.
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King salmon sit before being weighed on the docks in Ft. Bragg, CA. California's biggest water users—politically connected industrial farms—howl over every drop left in the river to benefit salmon instead of their crops of almonds, hay and alfalfa, and portray the issue as a survival contest between fish and people.
They conveniently omit that salmon runs support a multibillion dollar fishing industry and that there is enough water to keep salmon and the fishing industry alive without fields going fallow.
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Fisherman Alfredo Acosta sorts fish by weight on the docks in Ft. Bragg, CA. Dry conditions are only expected to increase as climate change intensifies, which is why keeping water in western rivers is so critical to the survival of salmon. To pull salmon off the endangered species list for good will require a collaborative effort.
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A sockeye salmon makes its way back up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn. The Columbia Basin once hosted the world's greatest salmon runs—up to 16 million fish each year.
Today, just a fraction remains, decimated by more than 200 dams thwarting salmon spawning runs. Four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington State are driving all remaining Snake River salmon toward extinction.
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Sockeye salmon make their way back up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn. Earthjustice supports a collaborative approach to bring together all parties—fishermen and salmon advocates, tribal leaders, dam operators, water users and government agencies—to craft a compromise solution that benefits the long-term survival of an ecologically, economically and culturally important fish, says organization President Trip Van Noppen.
He concedes that we can't make the West's rivers fully wild again, but we can ensure that they are once more able to support healthy populations of wild Pacific salmon and the fishing communities that rely on them.
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