How to Save an Amazing Fish (and the Golden State!)

October 19, 2016

How to Save an Amazing Fish (and the Golden State!)

One of the extraordinary non-profits that Beastly Threads supports, The Bay Institute (TBI), is a leading conservation and restoration organization focusing on increasing chinook salmon populations in California. I got the chance to ask Gary Bobker, TBI Program Director, some questions about why the chinook struggles to survive, how The Bay Institute is helping restore chinook populations, and what state leaders and every day people can do to save the chinook and California as a whole from the current drought and global warming.

Beastly Threads (BT): What would you say are the greatest threats to the chinook salmon in the San Francisco Bay and its watershed?

Gary Bobker: First, dams (sometimes more than one) on each of the major rivers in the Bay’s watershed block access to much of the historic spawning habitat for Chinook salmon, and there is often not enough water released from these dams – or the water is not cold enough – to incubate salmon eggs and support growth in the little spawning habitat remaining downstream. Second, the extensive floodplains and other riverine habitats that once provided food and shelter for the young salmon on their journey to the ocean have been destroyed or disconnected from the river corridors by levees. Third, the few salmon that make it downstream must migrate through a gauntlet of water diversions – in particular, the giant pumps in the Delta portion of the Bay estuary are so powerful that they can make rivers flow backwards, disrupting salmon migration and even drawing fish into the pumping plants themselves.

BT: What is The Bay Institute doing to increase the chinook population and ensure its longterm survival?

Gary Bobker: TBI helped win – and works to oversee implementation of – the historic 2006 agreement to restore salmon to the San Joaquin River, the state’s second largest river. California’s largest population of spring-run Chinook salmon was destroyed when Friant Dam was built over half a century ago, dewatering major stretches of the river in most years. What is more exciting than bringing a dead river and its lost salmon back to life?? We have also been a leader in the successful efforts to list Chinook salmon as endangered and secure major new salmon restoration resources under federal law, replace initially weak Endangered Species Act regulations with stronger new protections regarding flow and water diversions, and defend these new protections against attack in court and in Congress. TBI is also working with federal and state fishery agencies on a pioneering initiative to develop scientifically based, legally enforceable targets for restoring salmon and their habitat on the major rivers of the Bay’s Central Valley watershed. Finally, TBI and its partner organizations have identified dozens of actions that can be taken to reduce California’s water use to protect salmon, the environment, and critical human needs (see http://thebayinstitute.org/the-drought-what-california-can-do).

BT: Given the 5-year California drought and the state just experiencing its hottest summer on record, are you concerned that the Bay and its watershed will just continue to heat up?  Is there really still hope for the chinook?

Gary Bobker: Climate change is a real and dominant threat to ecosystems, but periods of extreme, extended drought are not new to California. Over the past two millennia, Chinook salmon and other fish species have survived droughts that lasted for decades or even centuries. What’s different about the situation today is that human mismanagement has created a permanent, artificial drought – on average, over half the water in the Bay’s watershed is diverted before it reaches the Bay. Requiring more cold, fresh water to be released from dams – along with reconnecting rivers to their adjacent floodplains, restoring woodlands along river margins, and improving fish passage past barriers like dams and diversions so fish can access cold water spawning and rearing habitat – can help provide the same conditions under which Chinook salmon thrived for thousands of years.

BT: If you could sit down for coffee with CA Governor Jerry Brown, what would be the three priorities you would put at the top of his environmental to-do list?

Gary Bobker: First, order state regulators to adopt without delay new water quality standards for the Bay estuary that ensure enough fresh water for Chinook salmon and other species to spawn, grow, and migrate successfully and re-establish healthy populations throughout the watershed. Second, reform California’s antiquated water rights system that favors senior water rights holders growing thirsty crops like almonds in the desert over the environment or drinking water supplies. Third, instead of investing billions of dollars in new canals, tunnels and dams that won’t solve the Bay’s problems (but instead will make them worse), spend that money on a crash program to droughtproof our cities and businesses by investing in more efficient water use practices like reuse and recycling.

BT: What can individuals and families do to help the chinook?  Stop eating salmon altogether?  Cut our water use even more?

Gary Bobker: Get to know your local salmon population – there’s nothing more inspiring than taking your family and friends to see salmon return to spawn on your local river. (Northern Californians can find out where to find salmon at http://www.thebayinstitute.org/programs/rivers-delta/wild-salmon-viewing/salmon-viewing-map). Support seafood restaurants and businesses that secure salmon and other fish from sustainably fished sources. (You can learn more at http://www.aquariumofthebay.org/conservation/san-francisco-seafood-watch-alliance). Take action to reduce your home water use and water-energy footprint – and support businesses that do the same in the workplace. (Visit http://thebayinstitute.org/the-drought-what-you-can-do to find out more). And, of course, demand that government officials and legislators implement local, regional, and statewide efforts to restore salmon and use water more efficiently.

 

 

 






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