June 3rd, 2011


Chair, Delta Vision Task Force

Filmmaker, Salmon: Running the Gauntlet

Conservation Biologist, The Bay Institute


In the post-World War II boom, previous generations prioritized cheap electricity and economic development over salmon. On the West Coast, huge dams blocked rivers and sprawl fragmented habitat. If wild salmon are to survive, in California and elsewhere, we must acknowledge that well-intentioned human ingenuity has failed and that tough choices wait, said a panel of experts at Climate One on June 3, in San Francisco.

“We overestimated our ability to mitigate the impacts of that dam construction,” said James Norton, writer and producer of Salmon: Running the Gauntlet, which recently aired on PBS. Fish ladders, hatcheries, barging – all have been deployed in an attempt to work around Mother Nature. “It’s turned out to be much more complicated than that, and it’s never really worked,” he said.

The complications don’t end there. In trying to sustain commercial salmon fisheries even as dams killed fish and sprawl chewed up habitat, salmon and fisherman both lost. The result: commercial fishing is “remnant industry,” Norton said, with 30,000 jobs lost on the West Coast in past 20 years. “All of the commercial fishermen that I talked to,” he said, “understand that that history is gone. What they’re fighting for is not the same levels of harvest that their ancestors benefitted from 100 years ago.”

To Norton, the lessons of this troubled history are clear. “I’d get out of the business of managing complex ecosystems. We’ve learned, over the last 150 years, there’s no appropriate surrogate for the natural productivity of these systems. We’ve learned that abundance – true abundance – is the default condition of these places. It’s not something that we tease out of them by being really clever.”

For Phil Isenberg, a longtime California lawmaker who now chairs the Delta Stewardship Council, the debate calls for establishing clear priorities. He noted that in California, according to a directive from the legislature and the governor’s office, demands for water and ecosystems are on equal footing, which should work to the benefit of salmon. “We have fought since before WWII the question of whether the human use of water is always more important than anything else. At least in California, the answer is No, it’s not.” He quickly added that this still doesn’t “solve the tensions between competing demands. They’re always there.”

Jonathan Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, cautioned against pitting salmon against people or jobs. “It doesn’t need to be framed in terms of either farmers in the Central Valley have water, or we have salmon.”

We do, he said, need to heed the message sent by the salmon’s decline. “Salmon are a hardy, adaptable, incredibly creative species that have survived for millions of years, through several ice ages, in every watershed up and down this coast. The fact that we can’t maintain them in the system says that we have way, way overreached any semblance of balance between human use and what our ecosystems need.”

And the problem is not to get any easier, James Norton said. “One of the unfortunate responses to decline is that people tend to cling really tightly to the agents of the decline. It gets paradoxically harder to make the big changes you need as the resource starts to deteriorate because everyone thinks it feels more fragile, and they just want to hold onto what they’ve got.”

– Justin Gerdes
June 3, 2011
Photos by Sonya Abrams
The Commonwealth Club of California