Delta fish may not be “too far gone” after all

Little fish, big controversy

The San Francisco Chronicle had this dire environmental pronouncement on its front page last week: “Delta fish may be too far gone to save, plan hints.”

Summarizing a report released by the Delta Stewardship Council, the article suggested that California’s salmon and Delta smelt -- a delicate creature that’s sort of an aquatic equivalent to a canary in a coal mine -- might be going the way of the dodo due to longterm environmental impacts. Even worse, it didn’t sound as if there was anything conservationists, state agencies, nor anyone else could do about it.

Aside from being downright depressing, that narrative sounded a little, er, fishy. No one disputes that the Delta has been dramatically impacted by environmental problems, and concerns about diminishing fish populations are well founded. Fights over pumping freshwater out of the Delta have been dragging on for years, pitting environmentalists and commercial fishermen against powerful water districts in arid regions.

But the notion that there's no longer any point in trying to save these Delta fish seemed hard to swallow. To take a cynical view, it would be rather convenient for certain powerful interests if the time, money, and water dedicated toward saving the salmon and smelt were freed up for other purposes.

Not being experts ourselves, however, we phoned Zeke Grader, who really knows his fish. Grader is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, a San Francisco-based trade association that represents commercial fishermen from Alaska to San Diego. Grader told us he was unwilling to accept the idea that it’s too late to save the salmon and the smelt.

“There may be some species … that are so far gone that it’s going to be impossible to save them, but I don’t think that’s the case with the salmon,” he said.

For once, Grader had some good news about the dramatically impacted salmon population. “This year, we had returns for the first time in 60 years upstream of the San Joaquin, now that we’ve got water back in it,” he said, referring to federally mandated increases in freshwater pumping into the Delta in recent years. “That clearly shows that after a couple years of restoring fish flows to it, that we’re getting fish back. That’s very encouraging, and we still have a lot to do, but I think we are going to be able to save the salmon.”

It might not be too late for the smelt, either, in Grader’s view. “I think we can save the Delta smelt. I think what was being said in the Delta Stewardship Council report has been either misinterpreted or misreported, because that’s simply not the case,” he added. “Maybe this is something that the water guys would like to create that myth, that well, we can’t restore, therefore don’t protect them -- which is utter nonsense.”

Grader attributed the improvements to programs that truck fish around the Delta in an effort to avoid water pumps, which can fatally impact salmon, as well as increased freshwater flows.

He added that he didn’t see how the Delta Stewardship Council could proceed with a plan working with the assumption that extinction of certain species is inevitable. “Unless they just decided to ignore the Clean Water Act, ignore the Endangered Species Act, ignore … all of our water laws, I don’t see why there’s any reason that we can’t recover a lot of these,” he said.