Stop studying salmon and start doing something

July 18, 2013 

John Wooden, UCLA's legendary basketball coach, famously said, "Don't mistake activity for achievement."

Californians who are interested in the health of our native salmon and steelhead populations should heed the coach's advice. Next week, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service will hold a two-day workshop at UC Davis to discuss "the State of the Science on Fish Predation on Salmonids in the Bay-Delta."

The workshop will include the assessment of key predation studies by a panel of experts, identification of data gaps, and development of a framework for follow-up research. All this culminating in, you guessed it, another report. While additional science may be good chicken soup for scientists, at some point actions need to speak louder than words regarding this critical issue.

It has become clear that predation on salmon and steelhead by non-native fish significantly limits recovery efforts. The National Marine Fisheries Service's 2009 Draft Recovery Plan for salmon and steelhead found predation on juveniles to be one of the most important specific stressors, and stated that reducing the abundance of non-native predator fish was necessary to "prevent extinction or to prevent the species from declining irreversibly."

Indeed, the NMFS even asked the state agency in 2010 "to consider proposed regulations directed at reducing, to the extent practicable, the effects of the nonnative species on federally listed anadromous species in California, especially the Central Valley."

Fish and Wildlife did acknowledge that predation by striped bass was "a substantial contributor to the poor survival of young salmon," but the recommendation to change the size and bag limits fell on deaf ears at the Fish and Game Commission. In a workshop conducted by the State Water Resources Control Board last year, the Department of Water Resources found that "research clearly indicates that predation plays a large role in the survival rates of out-migrating juvenile salmon."

Despite the agreement by these three agencies that predation is a significant problem, there is no active program in California addressing non-native predator fish. Such programs are commonplace in the Columbia River (pikeminnow), the Great Lakes (sea lamprey), Woods River in Alaska (Arctic char) and Cultus Lake in British Columbia (pikeminnow) and have been fairly successful. So will another report do us any good?

Fortunately, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, has introduced House Resolution 2705, which would establish a five-year pilot program to remove non-native predator fish from the Stanislaus River. The program would be be jointly conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts.

It will be scientifically based, developed in consultation with federal and state fish agencies, and include a rigorous monitoring and reporting program. At the end, the pilot program will put out a peer reviewed document identifying methods used, success achieved and recommendations for additional efforts on other streams in California. The pilot program will focus on the efficient removal of non-native predators that have decimated the Stanislaus River's salmon and steelhead populations, and the good news is, it won't cost taxpayers a dime because it will be funded by the two irrigation districts.

Despite the closure of the commercial ocean harvest in 2008 and 2009 and the crippling reductions in delta pumping to the southern part of our state, there has not been any recovery in the salmon population. Although the predator removal program is not a panacea, based on a review of other programs and results there will be an immediate, measurable improvement in the number of successfully migrating salmon and steelhead from the Stanislaus River.

Coach Wooden also said that "Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."

The state and federal agencies are refusing to change and apparently believe that more ink and paper can solve California's native salmon and steelhead declining populations. They can't. We are sorry, but additional studies at the expense of immediate action are no longer appropriate. The districts are pushing forward with implementation of the pilot program that would be established by Denham's bill. It's a good first step.

Knell is general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District, and Shields is general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

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