Rod Fujita is Senior Scientist and Director, Ocean Innovations, for EDF.
Salmon and steelhead are in jeopardy. That is no surprise to many of us, especially fishermen and coastal communities who have suffered through the closure of the salmon fishery. But thanks to NRDC’s successful lawsuit, it's official. The lawsuit forced NMFS to take another look at the effects of the state and federal water projects on salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon, resulting in a new Biological Opinion. This new Biological Opinion (B.O.), released two weeks ago, confirms our fears that the water projects have been and are likely to continue to jeopardize the continued existence of winter run, spring run, steelhead, and green sturgeon if nothing additional is done to protect these iconic and valuable species. The recommended actions in the B.O. are also consistent with the research and conclusions of many others: these fish need more water, cooler temperatures, better passage past dams, and improved habitat.
To save these fish, the B.O. goes beyond short-term band-aids toward a holistic health model. When salmon populations are this low, it is time to pull out all possible stops to save them which means supporting the survival of ALL life stages comprehensively, which is what the B.O. attempts to do. It acknowledges that just altering project operations is not sufficient; rather, the full range of Reclamation and DWR authorities (especially those provided by CVPIA) to reduce stressors and compensate for them must be brought to bear if these species and the fisheries and ecosystem values that depend on them are to survive, never mind recover.
Comprehensive protection of these flagship species should result in better protection for the myriad species, both discovered and undiscovered, that live in this vast watershed, delta, and estuarine system. This biodiversity and the processes that maintain it (flows, floods, habitat, water quality) are the keys to the system’s resilience – its capacity to continue to produce goods, services, and intrinsic value for us and for future generations even in the face of changing needs and a changing climate.
To NMFS’s credit, the B.O. is not fixated on its own prescriptions; rather, NMFS encourages creative thinking to solve the problem and reduce the stressors. In other words, this agency is focusing on performance, rather than actions or words. We should all pause to celebrate this quiet revolution, which should foster innovation and flexibility and at the same time achieve goals more efficiently.
If the goals of the B.O. are achieved – lower water temperatures in more years to enhance spawning, larger instream flows, more passage past dams, less exposure to toxic conditions in the delta, and improved genetic diversity of hatchery runs – salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon are certain to have a better chance for surviving through the droughts, floods, and fluctuations in ocean productivity to come. But these benefits will only be sustained if long-term plans for the Delta, such as that being contemplated in the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, are equally comprehensive and focus on the fundamental problems with how we manage the Bay-Delta—that’s the only way we see these species recovering and becoming truly robust and resilient in the long-run.