By Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle
A coalition of government agencies and advocates for sustainable fisheries came together Tuesday to launch a long-term effort to save California’s beleaguered salmon populations in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems.
The Central Valley Salmon Habitat Partnership will include 21 members — state and federal water and wildlife agencies, plus groups representing conservationists, farmers, water suppliers and the fishing industry — seeking to study, develop and fund projects to restore and protect vital habitats.
The partnership deal was signed Tuesday by John Laird, California’s secretary for natural resources.
“This group will take meaningful, decisive action to restore the types of habitat — in the right places — that these fish need to survive and even thrive,” said Curtis Knight, executive director of the conservation group California Trout.
The Central Valley rivers and tributaries are historically the second most productive habitat for salmon on the West Coast, behind the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.
But dams, channels, and the destruction of wetlands and floodplains over the past century have impeded access to spawning grounds, ruined food sources and made salmon vulnerable to predation. Steelhead trout and two of the four distinct runs of Chinook salmon are now listed as threatened or endangered.
The fish population hit bottom in 2008 and 2009, when there were so few salmon in the rivers and ocean that fishing was banned off the coasts of California and Oregon. The three years starting in 2007 were the worst period for the fish in the Central Valley watershed since records were first compiled in the 1970s, biologists said.
Chinook have recovered only slightly. State and federal scientists say there are about 230,000 Chinook in the ocean now, compared to 800,000 to a million in a good year. The commercial fishing season, which normally opens in May, was delayed for three months because of the paltry numbers.
The partnership hopes to develop measurable, geographically specific goals to improve the fish’s prospects.
“Salmon recovery happens one stream mile at a time,” said Scott Rumsey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s deputy administrator for the West Coast region. “By spurring restoration efforts, this group will, ultimately, help bring back the economic and environmental benefits of salmon to California communities.”
The group is modeled after the Central Valley Joint Venture, which has been working for decades to restore native and migratory bird populations.
“Although we may not always agree on water decisions,” said John McManus, the executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, “we can all work together to restore some of the river bank, side channel and floodplain habitats in the Central Valley which are crucial to rearing baby salmon.”
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @pfimrite