Statement by George Torgun, Earthjustice attorney who represented conservation and fishing groups in federal litigation to protect water flows for winter and spring runs of Sacramento River Chinook salmon:
"During the Bush administration, corporate agricultural interests were able to push their way to the front of the line to demand water at the expense of others, especially our native salmon species and the fishing communities that rely on them. Far more water was promised, and delivered, to marginal farms than what the Sacramento River ecosystem could sustain. Conservation and fishing groups have been yelling from the rooftops for years that 'fish need water,' but their cries fell on deaf ears. With the cancellation of commercial salmon fishing off the California coast for a second year, it's clear the salmon advocates were right."
Impact on Coastal Communities is Significant
This year's fishing ban is a devastating blow to an industry that has been one of the backbones of the coastal Northern Californian economy. The ban is the second in a row. Last year's fishing ban was the first ever.
In 2008, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) assessed the potential damage from the closure of the salmon season and determined the loss to be $255 million and 2,263 California jobs.
In 2008, Congress issued emergency relief funding for salmon fishermen and related businesses, but many coastal towns fear that a two-year shut down may be the end of salmon fishing in California.
In 2005, a coalition of fishermen, conservation, and tribal groups challenged the federal government's biological opinion on the 2004 Operations Criteria and Plan (OCAP) for management of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. The 2004 OCAP called for significantly increased water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta over historic levels and instituted other measures, such as relaxing cold water flow requirements and eliminating nearly half of the available salmon spawning habitat in the Sacramento River, that were credited with saving endangered winter-run Chinook salmon from extinction.
Although federal scientists charged with reviewing the plan concluded that doing so would illegally jeopardize protected salmon, political interference by members of the Bush administration resulted in finding that project operations would not harm listed salmon and steelhead species.
Not surprisingly, these operational changes have corresponded with significant declines in protected Chinook salmon populations since 2004.
In April 2008, federal judge Oliver W. Wanger agreed that the Bush administration failed to adequately evaluate impacts on three salmonid species listed under the Endangered Species Act (winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and Central valley steelhead), in violation of federal law. A new biological opinion for the OCAP was ordered and is now expected to be issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service on June 2, 2009.
The court's ruling also followed an August 31, 2007 decision to protect the delta smelt. In that ruling, the court ordered state and federal water managers to limit the giant pumps that draw water from the delta to supply farms and cities in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The fishing and conservation groups argued, and the court agreed, that keeping enough fresh water in the delta is vital to protecting the fragile ecosystem. A new biological opinion on delta smelt was issued in December 2008. The court no longer holds any jurisdiction over water exports as management has returned to the California Department of Water Resources and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.