Salmon, Bass, Owls, Spin

We've had a spate of stories here in northern California about the crash of the fall run of king salmon returning to spawn in the watershed of the Sacramento River.

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Historically, many hundreds of thousands of the fish would return annually; this year the count was around ninety thousand, which spells disaster for salmon fishermen up and down the coast. It is also one more indicator that the river system, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in particular, is very sick, largely because of the enormous volume of water diverted via giant pumps for agricultural and domestic use.

This was the story that the papers carried, and it did not make Big Ag happy. Just this morning (Feb 19) the San Francisco Chronicle carried an opinion piece from one Laura King Moon of the State Water Contractors that tries to put a different spin on the matter. She argues that the pumps that suck water from the delta are carefully regulated to protect salmon, that the problem must be out in the ocean or with fishing. And she puts much of the blame on striped bass, a species that was introduced into the delta more than a century ago and has coexisted with the salmon ever since. Moon says predation by bass on baby salmon is significant. She conveniently ignores the desperate plight of scores more delta species including the delta smelt, which recently provoked a court order that requires that more water be allowed to flow through the delta during the first half of the year. This may require that diversions from the delta be reduced unless we have big wet year.

Blaming the bass reminds me of the new bad guy in the spotted owl controversy in the forests to the north of us. Conventional wisdom has had it that the decline of the owl is due to habitat lost to logging. Now, pro-logging interests argue that no, logging is not the problem, it’s the barred owl, an alien invader from the East, which elbows spotted owls out of the way.

It’s a trend. When the story doesn’t go your way, find an alien to blame. Sounds kind of familiar.

Tom Turner literally wrote the books about Earthjustice during his more-than-25 years with the organization. A lifelong resident of Berkeley, CA, he is most passionate about Earthjustice's maiden issue: wilderness preservation.