It was a banner season for Bristol Bay salmon, but not so much for the rest of Alaska’s salmon fishermen. Still it was better than the slim season most California fishermen got.

We celebrated Wild Salmon Day in August and are looking forward to the Year of the Salmon in 2019. And yet, the future of our wild salmon runs is tenuous. The Food and Drug Administration is likely to give AquaBounty the go-ahead to import genetically modified salmon eggs — not-so-lovingly called Frankenfish — to its grow-out facility in Indiana.

This story appears in the summer 2018 edition of North Pacific Focus. Subscribe today for digital access and print.

Labeling the fish as genetically modified for sale in the U.S. market has also been soft-pedaled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Marketing Service.

The Washington Legislature and state agencies continue to press Cook Aquaculture on net-pen farming of invasive salmon in Puget Sound and surrounds. Yet, the majority of West Coast salmon farms are located in British Columbia, over which our fishermen and policy makers have no jurisdiction.

Still another threat is more destructive chess moves in California watersheds, thanks to the latest generation of opportunistic politicians and devastating wildfires. For years, California’s fishermen have fought for water rights up against a powerful agricultural lobby. While acknowledging that the nation needs California produce, the fishing industry just wants enough water running through salmon streams to ensure the viability of a commercial fishery.

In the midst of this summer’s record-breaking wildfires, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross released a statement that said in part, “I directed the National Marine Fisheries Service to facilitate access to the water needed to fight the ongoing wildfires affecting the state of California.”

If NMFS controlled access to the water, do you think California salmon would be drying up on creek beds? It’s a real head scratcher that just might encourage you not to bother to read the second paragraph of the statement. But that’s where the kicker comes, of course.

“Today, I direct NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to make clear to all its federal agency partners that the protection of life and property takes precedence over any current agreements regarding the use of water in the areas of California affected by wildfires… Consistent with the emergency consultation provisions under the ESA, Federal agencies may use any water as necessary to protect life and property in the affected areas.”

Some folks might read the bit about threatened and endangered species and hope some guidelines might be relaxed in favor of the industry. However, California’s fishermen have used the ESA to fight for access to water that protects native salmon species. This emergency declaration has just tossed aside years of negotiations between fishermen and farmers.

“Going forward, the department and NOAA are committed to finding new solutions to address threatened and endangered species in the context of the challenging water management situation in California.”

New solutions, folks. In this case, new solutions are not likely to include more water for fishermen. Keep your eyes peeled for new solutions that favor the “life and property” of California farmers. In the meantime, let’s hope it’s not as bad as it looks.

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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