With salmon in abundance, fishing fleet runs
aground on shoals of water politics
July 3, 2005
A healthy stock of salmon is busy swimming out
in the Pacific Ocean, but authorities have
restricted commercial fishing operations
throughout Northern California because of problems
in one river.
That would be the Klamath, where an anemic
population of salmon return each year to spawn.
Salmon return to the river of their birth to
end their life cycle, spawning just before they
die. Between birth and death, the fish live in the
ocean. And while they're in the ocean, the salmon
that were born in the Klamath mingle with those
that started life elsewhere.
There's no way a fisherman knows which is on
the hook. A regulator can't tell, either. So to
protect the precious few salmon that are bound for
the Klamath, the only recourse has been to curtail
ocean salmon fishing altogether.
The decision to limit commercial salmon fishing
has these mom-and-pop businesses angry and
frustrated, and understandably so. Consumers
aren't getting much of a break on salmon prices
either. The situation smells of White House
politics and misplaced priorities.
Once one of the West Coast's biggest salmon
fisheries, the Klamath begins in Oregon before
snaking south to California, then west to the
ocean. Along the way, considerable water is taken
from the river to sustain thousands of acres of
farm land, much of it devoted to potatoes.
The Klamath simply doesn't have the water to
deliver what the farmers desire and leave enough
in the river for healthy steelhead and salmon
populations. Up and down the river, key
tributaries that once sheltered these fish are
inhospitable because of excessive groundwater
pumping and historic logging practices, among
other human alterations.
The Klamath crisis can be wrongly portrayed as
a fish-vs.-humans matter. In truth, it's more of a
humans-vs.-humans competition, with commercial
fishermen and Indian tribes downstream pitted
against farmers upstream. The Bush administration
has tended to favor upstream interests in Oregon,
a state that is more likely to back a Republican
for president, over those in California, which
favors a Democratic stronghold.
A more balanced management policy would focus
on restoring the salmon fishery, because it is the
most high-value crop that the Klamath's water
sustains. But the situation along the Klamath is
anything but balanced. It is a mess. And now so is
the entire salmon season for commercial fishermen
off the coast. So many fish, so little fishing, so
little regard for common-sense water policies.