Why Salmon Matter
Coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead are iconic species of the Pacific. For at least 2 million years, salmon and steelhead have existed in coastal areas from Baja California through Alaska. They are an important part of our economy and cultural heritage. But throughout California and much of the Pacific Northwest, wild salmon are disappearing—as are the ecosystems, jobs and way of life that depend on them. In California, wild salmon have suffered the deepest decline of the West. But as the footprint of humans continues to expand, the issues we face here in California will become more common across the entire range of wild Pacific salmon.
Native Americans called the salmon “lightning following one another.” Their migrations are breathtaking and heroic— from their birth stream hundreds or thousands of miles to the ocean and then back to their birth stream again, navigating a multitude of threats along the way. Their return to the waters where they were born, to spawn a new generation and die, is a classic tragedy and wild hope combined. For the people of the West, our history is deeply intertwined with theirs. They are cultural touchstones, providing food, jobs, stories and memories across generations.
Coho Salmon: A Species Lost in our Lifetime?
Coho salmon are ‘canaries in the coal mine.’ As watershed conditions have declined in California coastal watersheds, so have their numbers, serving as a representative for the the health of the ecosystem. Given the current trajectory, California coho salmon are under threat of extinction in the next half-century and are down to 1% of their historic numbers. The dire status of coho salmon in California requires immediate and focused action to increase their numbers, and provide the highest-level of protection for those runs than are still recoverable. Natural forces affecting salmon runs include disease, predation, droughts and fluctuating ocean conditions. Human‐made threats include habitat alterations such as water diversion, dams, road building and maintenance, timber harvest, urbanization and rural-residential development, flood control and climate change. To reverse these trends, we need to strategically direct public and private funding to accelerate stream restoration in key watersheds in California where we can have the greatest impact.
Until the mid-1970s, coho accounted for approximately 25 percent of California’s commercial salmon fishery. However the precipitous decline of coho salmon in California prompted a series of State and Federal listing under the respective Endangered Specie’s Act’s in 1995 and 1996 (61 FR 56138). As a result, coho commercial and sport fisheries are closed, impacting jobs and local economic vitality. Those listings have also impacted other industries, such as forestry, by increasing costs associated with regulatory compliance.
Restoring Salmon Makes Economic Sense
Salmon are imperative to California’s economic ($1.5 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry), recreational and environmental welfare.
In the 1990’s the coho salmon fishery was entirely banned in California. Following this, in 2008 and 2009, California closed the commercial Chinook salmon fishery because of low adult salmon numbers; in 2010 and 2011 the seasons were limited. This takes a significant toll on rural communities and limits local seafood options for consumers.
Also, more than $225 million has been spent on instream habitat restoration in the past decade, resulting in approximately 3,000 California jobs. Restoration work has been shown to provide as many or more jobs per million dollar spent as many other industries, including agriculture, oil & gas development and gray infrastructure, such as construction and transit repair. With over a quarter of a billion dollars having been spent on primary funding for salmon and steelhead restoration in the state over the past decade, a significant number of jobs have been created through the effort to recover salmon and their habitats in California.