In six years, the salmon population in the San Francisco Bay Delta has declined by 90%.
On a recent trip to Alaska, tribal elders told our delegation from the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that the entire northwest salmon population could be gone by 2015.
This is important. And not just because salmon is an excellent source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
The rapid dying off of a species once plentiful in our oceans, bays and rivers is a sign of serious environmental degradation, rising global temperatures and the over-burdening of domestic water supplies through urban sprawl and inefficient agricultural irrigation.
Fortunately, after eight years of ignorance and inaction in Washington, we have an administration that is heeding these obvious warning signs. Two recent decisions will be enormously beneficial to the fight to reverse our course and possibly restore millennia-old salmon runs.
The first involved funding for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Program. President Obama's initial budget for Fiscal Year 2010 zeroed out funding for the program aimed at restoring sustainable, fishable salmon and steelhead populations. This, despite the success the program had shown in improving habitats and bringing together landowners, environmentalists, professional and leisure fishermen and local leaders to help recover and restore salmon populations. After a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress and Senators wrote a letter detailing the critical situation facing salmon and steelhead in western states, the administration reconsidered its earlier decision and restored the funding.
Then, yesterday, the National Marine Fisheries Service released an 800 page opinion that found that state and federal water systems had jeopardized California's spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and Southern Resident killer whales. The report blamed the redirection of water from the Sacramento River delta to cities and agricultural uses for depleting the numbers of fish and dramatically boosting water temperatures.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle details the agency's report, including orders to limit the amount of fresh water diverted from rivers feeding the delta. "The aim is to make waterways more hospitable and accessible to spawning salmon, while also preventing the fish from getting trapped in the giant delta pumps that funnel water to 25 million Californians and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Federal architects of the plan say California's future relies on reviving these fragile species." The article stated.
This is, indeed, good news. But it is just a beginning. The loss of any species is a perilous sign and impacts the greater environment in countless and unseen ways. When that species is something as culturally and commercially significant as salmon, we must all take heed. While it is easy to point fingers at corporate farms or new residential developments, all of us use water and most of us waste it. Please make it a part of your life to consider where this precious natural resource comes from before letting it pour down the drain or run off an over-watered garden.
If salmon disappear, they will not be last species to face that fate. Just as canaries were once used to warn coal miners of the presence of deadly carbon monoxide, the fish currently dying in our waterways are trying to tell us something. It's well past time that we all listened.