The Future of California’s Fish — and People — is Being Set Today

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By Trevor Fagerskog

Fish matter. Perhaps more than you think, because our futures are linked. Fish, like people, depend heavily on one precious natural resource: clean water.

Few fishes are more important to California than native trout and salmon. In good years, California’s salmon support a $4 billion industry. Nearly two million anglers buy recreational fishing licenses each year. Fishing is a primary economic driver for many coastal and rural communities and a way of life for many families and Tribes.

Dollars and cents aside, native salmonids have been a vital part of California’s natural and cultural heritage. Salmon are a dietary and cultural cornerstone for many Indigenous Californians. The nutrients that salmon and steelhead bring from the ocean nourish whole watersheds. Only Alaska has more native salmonids than California.

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But as climate change makes things hotter and drier, these and other native fishes are rapidly losing habitat. The skeletal flows in many streams this year mean lethal temperatures and oxygen levels for fish. Fishing opportunities statewide have been reduced or curtailed.

Yet there are reasons for hope. We know what works to restore and sustain California fisheries. We must make sure trout and salmon have quality habitat: cold, clean waters in which to spawn and grow.

An initiative called 30 x 30 California, an initiative to protect 30% of the state’s lands and waters by 2030 (linked in the online version of this article), provides a timely mechanism for prioritizing the actions needed to protect and restore cold water habitats. The state is preparing to release a draft of its “Pathways to 30 x 30” report for public review and comment. Here are some tactics and strategies that should be included:

California can designate key sources of cold, clean water as “outstandingly natural resource waters.” Managed by state regional water boards, this designation protects important habitat for trout and salmon from mining and other development that degrades water quality. The Eel and South Fork Trinity rivers are prime examples of waters to evaluate for this designation, as they support some of the best remaining runs of steelhead in California.

The state also can actively support legislation that better protects cold water habitats. The Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act, the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, and the San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act are all examples of good legislation, informed by regional needs, that do this.

To better inform resource management decisions, the state also needs to step up its game in monitoring fish and wildlife populations and habitat conditions. Science-driven conservation groups like Trout Unlimited are ready and willing to partner in this important work.

We also need to work with Tribes and Nations and leaders from other underrepresented communities to leverage the ecological expertise of Indigenous Californians and make access to the outdoors more diverse and equitable. Expanding recreation opportunities in developed areas, such as by stocking fish in water bodies created from old quarries, can help achieve this goal. Funding programs such as Vamos a Pescar that introduce women and communities of color to the joy of fishing are also a great idea.

I have fished for native steelhead — the iconic sportfish of coastal and Central Valley streams — since 1990, and have watched these fisheries steadily decline. My commitment to conserving trout and salmon stems from witnessing this loss. 

There is no time to waste. Multiple species of native salmon and trout are likely to go extinct if we do not act. California must make strategic, science-driven investments that capitalize on our state’s remarkable biological and cultural diversity to deliver on the promise of 30 x 30, for fish and people.

~ Trevor Fagerskog is chair of the California Council of Trout Unlimited, which brings together diverse interests to care for and recover rivers and streams so our children can experience the joy of wild and native trout and salmon. He lives in Roseville.

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