Pacific salmon and steelhead once spawned in nearly every river and stream that reached the Pacific ocean from Los Angeles, CA to Alaska. Today, many of these populations are in decline — more than two dozen unique populations of salmon are listed as threatened or endangered by the US government. The reason: rivers and streams on the Pacific Coast are dammed, drained, diverted, buried under silt, or otherwise unable to support abundant salmon populations.
Two major forces threaten to decimate our wild salmon populations and our rivers: salmon farms and water management practices that alter the volume and timing of flow in our rivers.
- Learn more about how salmon farms jeopardize our aquatic ecosystems and the wild salmon that swim through them.
- For examples of how major western river systems and their salmon are affected by dams and giant water diversions owned and operated by YOU, the taxpayer, click here.
Salmon need flowing rivers
We are conditioned to believe that the problems with our rivers have to do with chemical pollution. And, despite many years of improvement in water quality, there are areas where pollutants dumped into our rivers or excess pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields and suburban lawns cause problems for our fish.
But, the more fundamental threat to wild salmon is that the rivers they use for spawning and rearing no longer flow like rivers. Dams and giant water diversions have turned our cold, free-flowing rivers into a series of warm lakes upstream and often dry rivers (or make them flow backwards!) downstream. Salmon cannot spawn or grow in warm waters that come from the reservoirs formed behind dams. They cannot migrate easily past the dams (even when there are “fish ladders”). And their juveniles cannot find the ocean when water diversions suck most of the flow out of our rivers.
The loss of Pacific salmon populations impacts coastal and tribal communities all along our coast and inland to Idaho and Nevada. Over the last couple of decades, the Pacific Coast commercial fishing fleet has declined from more than 10,000 salmon fishermen to 1,000. Native American tribes can no longer depend on the salmon for sustenance as they always have; as a result, these people are suffering skyrocketing increases in heart disease and diabetes. Similarly, businesses and communities that depend on sportfishing, from ocean charter boat operations to tackle shops well-inland, have suffered due to the demise of our wild Pacific salmon.
Salmon are very resilient! If access to cold flowing water is restored, they will bounce back. Case in point: Sacramento River winter run Chinook salmon nearly went extinct in the early 1990’s when their numbers had dwindled to a mere 186 spawning adults. Once they were protected under the Endangered Species Act, measures were undertaken to restore habitats in the Sacramento River. One dam was modified to provide cooler water for incubating salmon eggs. Another dam that was blocking salmon migration was opened. Within a few years of these improvements, winter run Chinook salmon numbers had increased to over 8,000 spawning adults.