California’s salmon and trout facing EXTINCTION

  • Published on May 21st, 2017

If present trends continue, almost half of California’s native salmon, steelhead and trout are likely be extinct in the next 50 years  — and 70 percent of these iconic fish will be gone in one hundred years.

By Dan Bacher

That was the alarming news unveiled by scientists and conservation group leaders in a press teleconference announcing the findings of a new report released by California Trout and the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences on Tuesday, May 16.

The report, “State of the Salmonids II: Fish in Hot Water,”  reveals that California’s native salmon, steelhead and trout are “in dire threat of widespread extinction” if present trends continue. The report details the status of 32 salmonid populations in California and identifies opportunities for stabilizing and even recovering these species.

Speakers at the conference included Curtis Knight, Executive Director of California Trout; Peter Moyle, PhD, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department. of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology and Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis; Robert Lusardi, PhD, CalTrout-UC Davis Wild and Coldwater Fish Researcher, Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis; and Patrick Samuel, Conservation Program Coordinator for California Trout.

SOS II: Fish in Hot Water is the second report of its kind released by CalTrout and the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences over the past decade. They released the first edition in 2008, establishing a baseline level of health for each of 32 types of native salmon, steelhead, and trout populations in the state, including the extinct Bull trout.

In fact, I moderated a panel discussion on the findings and the state of our fisheries by one of the co-authors of the previous report, Dr. Josh Israel, and other fishery experts at the International Sportsmen’s Exposition (ISE) in Sacramento in January 2008, the year of the Sacramento River salmon collapse and complete closure of the ocean salmon fishery.

It is disconcerating to see, in spite of all of the money spent by state, federal , regional and local governments and foundations on restoration programs since that time, that the situation with native salmon, steelhead and trout appears to be actually getting worse than better.

The latest report documents how since 2008, the number of California’s native fish species likely to be extinct within the next five decades has “nearly tripled, from 5 to 14 species. And after five years of historic drought, 81 percent of the remaining 31 species are worse off today than they were a decade ago.”

“The health of our native fish is a reflection of the health of our rivers and streams,” said Curtis Knight, Executive Director of CalTrout. dead salmon by colink “Declining fish populations indicate degraded waters, which threaten the health and economic well-being of all Californians.”

Lead report author Dr. Peter Moyle noted, “This report should rightly be considered an alarm bell, but it should also be seen as a roadmap for how we can correct course to better support native aquatic species. Thanks to ongoing scientific research, we now know what to do – and where – to improve the plight of native fish.”

On a positive note, In response to a question about Southern steelhead during the news conference, Moyle emphasized the resilience of steelhead, in spite of all of the obstacles that they face.

“Steelhead are  truly an amazing fish,” said Moyle. “That they are still persisting in an big urban area down to almost San Diego is remarkable and shows their resilience. The choice is whether we want to see them in the rivers or or not. People get excited when they see these big fish going upriver. We are now making choices whether have fish like the Southern steelhead in the future.”

The authors pointed to the drought as one of the key reasons for the recent declines in salmonid populations in California – and the impacts of the drought continue to impact fish across the state.

“At the same time, these animals are incredibly resilient,” said Robert Lusardi. “Despite seeing a decline, I think we were surprised that they made it through  some hard times (during the drought). We didn’t lose any species during the drought. “

However, Lusardi and others said the fish need to have good years so they can build up their populations able enough to withstand the tough times forecasted with climate change in the future.

The report includes an analysis of key threats to the survival of each species, starting with the “overarching threat of climate change, which is likely to reduce the availability of cold water habitat that salmon, steelhead, and trout all depend on for survival.”

“It (climate change) is considered a critical or high threat for 27 of 31 species (87%). It is considered a low threat to only one species, the Coastal Rainbow trout,” the report states. “The majority of salmonid species in California is currently facing, or is likely to face, extinction from climate change if present trends continue.

The report said the “main effects of a warming climate on California salmonids” are the lack of cold water, low and variable streamflows, constricted habitat, reduced habitat suitability and survival, food web alteration and rising sea levels.

The report also highlights various other human-induced threats, including residential development, major dams, agriculture, fire, alien species, transport, logging, fish harvest, estuary alteration, hatcheries, mining, instream mining, grazing, urbanization and recreation.

“We have already lost one of our native fish,” Knight said. “The Bull trout was last seen in the McCloud River in 1975. The fact we haven’t lost another since 1975 is remarkable. These fish are resilient, but this report underscores that we must act now to prevent further extinctions.”

Some alarming facts from the report reveal that:

• Of California’s remaining salmon, steelhead and trout, 81 percent are worse off today than in 2008,

•  The number of species likely to be extinct in 50 years increased 180 percent in the last 10 years – from just 5 in 2008 to 14 today.

•  California will lose more than half (52 percent) of its native anadromous (migratory) salmonids, and over a quarter (27 percent) of its inland salmonids in the next 50 years if present trends continue.

• Only Coastal rainbow trout have a good chance for survival if present trends continue.

Species that face the most immediate threat of extinction include Central California Coast Coho Salmon, Sacramento River Winter-run Chinook Salmon, Southern Steelhead, Kern River Rainbow Trout and the McCloud River Redband Trout.

The report notes that improving salmonid status throughout California “requires investing in productive habitats that promote growth, survival, and diversity.”

CalTrout has developed an action plan to return the state’s salmon, steelhead, and trout to resilience to help many of these species thrive.

To reverse the trend toward extinction, the report suggests “prioritizing protection and restoration” efforts in three general areas:

  • “Protecting the most productive river ecosystems remaining in California, such as the Smith and Eel Rivers, must be a priority. These strongholds, among others, have the capacity to support diversity and abundance because they retain high quality habitat and are not heavily influenced by hatcheries, supporting the persistence of wild fish.
  • Increasing focus on source waters will keep more water in streams and reduce stress on fish during drought, buffering the effects of climate change. Sierra meadow restoration, springs protection and progressive groundwater management all contribute to this effort.
  • Restoring function to once productive – but now highly altered – habitats can greatly improve rearing conditions for juvenile fish, especially floodplains, coastal lagoons, estuaries, and spring-fed rivers.”

The report also identifies three science-based strategies to support a return to abundance for California’s native salmonids. These are: (1) focus on opportunities to mimic natural processes within altered landscapes; (2) prioritize improving fish passage to historical spawning and rearing grounds that have been cut off over time; and (3) pursue strategies that increase genetic diversity of wild fish.

“We know we are not going to turn back the clock to a time before rivers were dammed or otherwise altered for human benefit,” Knight said. “Using the best available science, we can make landscape-level changes that will allow both people and fish to thrive in California.”

“If knowledge is power, then this information should be critical in reversing the trend toward a continued decline of our special fishes, with California Trout at the forefront of aquatic conservation,” concluded Moyle.

Unfortunately, the report didn’t discuss one of the biggest threats to salmon, steelhead and trout fisheries — Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels. While all of the proposed solutions in the report have a lot of merit — many of these other efforts may become moot if Brown has his way and builds his two massive, 35-mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to divert more Sacramento River water to corporate agribusiness interests, Southern California water agencies and oil companies conducting fracking and other extreme oil extraction methods.

Note: I asked a question about the possible impact of the tunnels on these fish species at the end of the conference call, but Dr. Moyle had already left the call and the others deferred to him. I am currently waiting for a reply from Dr. Moyle regarding the potential impact of the California WaterFix on salmon, steelhead and trout. When I receive a reply, I will add the information to this article.

The longer, full report is expected this summer. To read the report’s main findings and explore related online resources, go to www.caltrout.org/sos/.

For a blog post from UC Davis authors Peter Moyle and Robert Lusardi, visithttps://californiawaterblog.com/.

To download the full report, or to view and listen to a recording of the teleconference, go to: https://californiatroutinc.app.box.com/s/dm3rhv5rel804111tqdg6tkkq1e00ezo.

(Images CC by ThomasHawk and colink on Flickr)

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.