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Can California salmon be saved? Newsom unveils plan to end decadeslong decline

A person holds up a green and brown speckled fish with its mouth open
Fewer than 80,000 Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon returned to spawn in 2022, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s a decline of nearly 40% from the previous year and the lowest since 2009. | Source: Steve Martarano/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP Photo

With salmon populations throughout California declining for decades and facing the threat of extinction, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday unveiled a state strategy aimed at protecting and restoring the iconic species “amidst hotter and drier weather exacerbated by climate change.”

The blueprint calls for tearing down dams and improving passages for migrating salmon, restoring flows in key waterways, modernizing hatcheries to raise fish and taking other steps to help chinook, coho, steelhead and other migrating fish. 

“We’re doubling down to make sure this species not only adapts in the face of extreme weather but remains a fixture of California’s natural beauty and ecosystems for generations to come,” Newsom said in a statement.

Fewer than 80,000 Central Valley fall-run chinook salmon—a mainstay of the state’s salmon fishery—returned to spawn in 2022, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s a decline of nearly 40% from the previous year and the lowest since 2009. Last year, all salmon fishing was canceled in California and much of Oregon due to low numbers projected to return from the Pacific.

The threats to California’s salmon are many—dams that block migration, diversions that drain rivers, ocean conditions and climate change. And the effects of the decline are wide-ranging: loss of fishery jobs, impacts on tribes’ food security and cultures, no local supplies for restaurants and consumers, and more.

An aerial view of a river and surrounding marshes crisscrossed by roads
A drone photo shows an area of the Elk River that's been the site a salmon restoration project in Eureka on Tuesday. | Source: Terry Chea/AP Photo

Many of the projects and solutions outlined in Newsom’s report are already underway, or under the direction of the federal government, tribes and conservation groups. Included are the historic demolition of four aging hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River and reintroduction of endangered Sacramento River winter-run chinook eggs to the McCloud River upstream of Lake Shasta.

Regulatory efforts include establishing minimum flows on the fiercely contested Scott and Shasta Rivers and the long-delayed and controversial management plan for the Bay-Delta, the heart of the state’s water supply. 

Some environmental groups called the plan a ploy to burnish Newsom’s image after taking other steps that jeopardized salmon: his waiver of water quality requirements in the Delta that protect salmon, his support of a controversial pact with major water suppliers and his backing of the Delta tunnel project, which the state’s environmental assessment warned could put salmon at risk.

Scott Artis, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association, said in a statement that the plan is “is packed full of good stuff that we have been fighting to get for years,” but said “it conflicts with what the Newsom administration has been doing for years to devastate California’s most important salmon runs.”

“What it potentially boils down to is conveniently timed smoke and mirrors,” he added.

A wooden sign with the words Chinook Salmon hangs above an outdoor water tank with a man in a cap and a brown hillside in the background
A tank at the Iron Gate Hatchery holds juvenile chinook salmon at the base of the Iron Gate Dam. The dam is one of four along the Klamath River scheduled to be removed by the end of 2024. | Source: Gillian Flaccus/AP Photo

The plan “is a repackaging of victories by tribes and environmental and fishing organizations across the state, which were hard-fought and which happened to fall on Governor Newsom’s watch,” said Jon Rosenfield, science director of San Francisco Baykeeper.

“The governor has spent his entire administration resisting new protections for salmon, waiving existing protections, making sure his water board didn’t adopt new regulatory safeguards that everyone agrees are necessary,” he said. “And now, in the sixth year of his administration, he’s got a plan, which doesn’t include any of the fixes that the best available science says are necessary.”

For instance, he said the state should stop promoting major water diversions like the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir, and instead reduce demand for water, particularly among growers. He also raised concerns that the administration has backed voluntary agreements with major water suppliers related to Bay-Delta flows that could undermine and supplant science-based, mandatory standards developed by the state.

Though Newsom’s strategy pledges to complete these long-awaited standards for the Bay-Delta by the end of 2025, it also says they “could include potential Voluntary Agreements.”

Man in jacket and tie smiles
Some environmental groups called the plan a ploy to burnish Gov. Gavin Newsom's image after he took other steps that jeopardized the state's salmon population. | Source: Stephen Lam/SF Chronicle/POOL

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said these agreements “do not provide flow to ensure year-round protection or protection in critical dry years” and that the flows are “not large enough to adequately restore and protect aquatic ecosystems.” 

California Trout, a conservation organization, welcomed Newsom’s support for habitat restoration and demolishing barriers like the Scott and Cape Horn dams, which block fish migration on the Eel River. PG&E released its preliminary plans for removing these dams in November. 

“These actions are critical and urgent in light of climate change,” Darren Mierau, California Trout program director in the North Coast region, said in a statement. 

California Trout and University of California Davis scientists predict that the state will lose nearly half of its native salmon and trout species in the next 50 years if conditions continue unchanged.

“After 10 years of rapidly intensifying drought with episodic bouts of rain and snow events, salmon are not doing well,” Newsom’s salmon plan says. 

Newsom’s strategy document comes with the heavy caveat that “it will require time, effort, and funding” and that the pace “will depend upon the feasibility and availability of resources and competing priorities.” 

The strategy takes aim at the many dams, large and small, that choke off nearly 90% of spawning and rearing habitat in cool mountain streams. It lists efforts underway to demolish dams on the Eel River that impound water in Lake and Mendocino counties and that impede Southern California steelhead, an endangered species, in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Several projects would remove or reduce barriers on the Feather River, including upgrades to parts of the Oroville-Thermalito complex.

Also included are projects to reintroduce salmon in rivers across the state, such as an effort that already began on the McCloud River, where chinook salmon hadn’t spawned for more than 80 years

The wide-ranging strategy also calls for improving hatcheries that raise fish to introduce into the wild, and updating data collection about stream flows, temperature and salmon migration.

“The future of California salmon is up to us all,” the plan concludes.