President Trump is attacking California’s salmon fishing industry and its 23,000 jobs


By John McManus and Noah Oppenheim, Special to CalMatters

Joe Amoroso of California Fish and Wildlife's Feather River Hatchery takes a net full of Chinook winter-run salmon from the Service's Jeff Freund at Coleman National Fish Hatchery Complex in Anderson, CA. Photo by Steve Martarano, USFWS via Flickr
Joe Amoroso of California Fish and Wildlife’s Feather River Hatchery takes a net full of Chinook winter-run salmon from the Service’s Jeff Freund at Coleman National Fish Hatchery Complex in Anderson, CA. Photo by Steve Martarano, USFWS via Flickr

President Donald Trump rallied supporters in Bakersfield last month with his administration’s attack on California’s salmon fishing industry, which supports 23,000 jobs and generates $1.4 billion a year in the Golden State.  

Joining the president was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt – former lobbyist for Westlands Water District.  When he worked for Westlands, Bernhardt lobbied and litigated – unsuccessfully – against salmon protections. Now, as Interior Secretary, Bernhardt finalized the elimination of more than a dozen protections for endangered species and salmon in Central Valley river and the Bay-Delta estuary.  

It’s no surprise to salmon fishermen and women that neither salmon nor our industry was mentioned during the Bakersfield event.

Bernhardt’s former clients are a few hundred agribusiness operators on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley.  Their massive groundwater overdraft, their decision to plant almonds and other permanent crops despite having junior water rights, and their farming of toxic soils all make Westlands the definition of unsustainable agriculture.  This is not a broad criticism of agriculture. Like farmers, fishermen put food on the table. And almonds have been farmed responsibly in the Sacramento Valley for more than a century.

In contrast, California salmon represent a sustainable, highly sought, healthy local food.  Unlike Westlands, whose agricultural practices harmecosystems, salmon fishing depends on healthy rivers and ecosystems.  

Healthy Central Valley salmon runs are the cornerstone of a diverse fishing economy that includes coastal communities from Santa Barbara to Crescent City, in San Francisco Bay and along Central Valley rivers. These jobs include commercial and recreational fishermen, party boats, inland river guides, tackle and marine manufacturers and retailers, fish markets, harbor-related businesses, restaurants and more.  Californians have long looked forward to the spring start of the salmon season and the arrival of the best fish in the world in our markets and restaurants. 

The new, weak rules that Bernhardt finalized allow huge boosts in Delta water diversions, and eliminate temperature and flow protections in our rivers that are essential to keeping salmon alive. Last July, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that these rules would result in significant harm to California salmon, steelhead and killer whales – and to our industry.

The new rules allow the federal Central Valley Project to kill 100 percent of baby winter run Chinook salmon below Shasta Dam for three years running.  Chinook salmon live for three years, so authorizing the Bureauof Reclamation to kill every endangered winter run for three years amounts to an extinction plan for this species.  

This concern is based on painful experience.  In 2014 and 2015, the Bureau drained the cold water behind Shasta Dam during the summer growing season.  The lethal fall river temperatures that resulted killed 96% and 97% of baby winter run salmon. Those temperatures killed many fall run Chinook as well, which has hurt our industry.  

That fish kill led the Brown and Obama Administrations to begin strengthening protections for salmon and Bay-Delta endangered species.  The new federal administration, however, turned that effort on its head.

They schemed to boost Delta water diversions and purged federal scientists who objected. They weakened every salmon protection put in place to address the disastrous over pumping of the Delta that occurred in the early 2000s. If allowed to stand, these new federal water diversion rules could cause extinctions, permanent damage to our fishing economy and increasing toxic algae outbreaks in the Delta. 

Trump made campaign promises to his California supporters that require breaking our industry in order to deliver. Fishermen and environmental groups have sued to block this attack in federal court.  We thank Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra for filing suit as well. But blocking weaker federal protections is not enough.

Newsom has made it clear that he’s willing to stop Trump’s water policies from destroying California’s natural resources and fisheries productivity, but there’s still work to be done. 

We urge Newsom to support efforts by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Game to set new, science-based water diversion rules that increase protections for salmon and the Bay-Delta.   The governor should then use state law to bring federal water operations in California into compliance with state standards. Using these tools, the governor can protect California from Trump environmental attacks and reverse the decline of salmon and the Bay-Delta. 


John McManus is president of the Golden State Salmon Association, Noah Oppenheim is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of FIshermen’s Associations, They wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read McManus’ other commentaries for CalMatters, please click here, and here, and here.