Salmon Aid Festival: A Fight to Save the Endangered Fish

Last weekend, the Delta water story took me to Oakland to attend the 2009 Salmon Aid Festival. The main event happened on Saturday, June 20 to Sunday, June 21, with a special Native American ceremonial salmon bake on Friday, June 19. More than two dozen organizations “including commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen, conservation organizations, chefs, restaurants, scientists, and many others” worked together to create Salmon Aid to “raise awareness of the plight of west coast salmon populations, the rivers and streams they spawn in, and the many coastal and inland communities that rely on salmon for their livelihoods and survival.” Salmon advocates came from California, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Nevada and other faraway places to support the event. The festival had education booths, activities, food, environmental film screenings and music to showcase the human connection to the fish as well as educate the public.

I had the opportunity to interview Jessie Reader, a Salmon Aid event organizer. She is also an organizer for the Tuloumne River Trust, a Native American organization concerned about the salmon declines. Below is the Q & A interview.

What did you think of the event?

Bigger and better than last year, SalmonAid 2009 featured 10 great musical acts, including Bay Area favorite Afro-Dance Band Albino!. We had sustainable seafood from some of the West Coasts finest restaurants, film screenings from the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, kids activities, and information from over two dozen organizations who work for sustainable salmon fishing and protection of our rivers and streams. Two sunny days brought out a great crowd from around Oakland and the Bay Area.

Was it a success? And why?

SalmonAid 2009 was a great success on a number of fronts. Working closely together to put on this event has significantly strengthened our unlikely but growing coalition of commercial fishing groups, recreational fishing groups, environmental organizations, and tribes. We built a platform for over 2 dozen organizations that would not have had the means to make such an outreach event happen on their own. Politically, we see that we are making an impact. Congressional Representative Barbara Lee sent a commendation, and Representative George Miller sent one of his senior staffers to read a statement of support. The festival mobilized over 1300 letters to President Obama and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco (the Federal Agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act when it comes to Salmon) As we move forward, President Obama’s Administration and Congress will continue to hear from our many diverse groups speaking with one voice.

Why is it so important to have the Salmon Aid Festival this year?

The 2009 SalmonAid Festival couldn’t have come at a better time. Many of California’s native fish populations, including salmon, have crashed during the past eight years, when agency science was politically manipulated to allow ever-increasing amounts of water to be exported from the Bay-Delta – the West Coast’s largest estuary. As water exports from the Bay-Delta estuary increased to record levels, these fish populations plummeted to historic lows. Due to these steep declines, thousands of West Coast commercial, recreational, and tribal fishermen are enduring another fishery closure in California and Oregon this year, as they did in 2008. Economic losses in 2009 are predicted to total $270 million and nearly 2,700 jobs.

The June 4 release of the Biological Opinion on Sacramento River salmon from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS – an agency under NOAA) is one of the first signs that the Obama Administration is following through on their promise to reinstate sound science into policy. This Biological Opinion replaces a scientifically corrupt Bush-era opinion that a federal court threw out as legally invalid. In contrast, the 2009 Sacramento River BiOp underwent two separate peer reviews to ensure that it was based on the best available science. We are encouraged to think that the means the Administration cares about the fate of wild Pacific salmon and the many human communities (as well as other creatures) that depend on this magnificent fish. The BiOp sends a message of hope to the many people who depend on the salmon economy across the West Coast.

SalmonAid 2009 also comes on the heels of a failed attempt by Congressman Nunes to pass an amendment that would have prohibited NMFS from spending any funds to implement the BiOp and enforce the Endangered Species Act. Nunes’ desire was to stop any potential cutbacks to the amount of water being taken out of the Delta for agribusiness, and the rational was that the ESA was going to hurt the CA economy. Our rebuttal is this: We are facing cutbacks because the water agencies have severely mismanaged the water resources; they have promised water that isn’t available. Endangered fish are a very small part of the story. (To use an analogy, this proposal is akin to repealing drunk driving laws because one would like to to get drunk. We don’t repeal laws because they are sometimes inconvenient to follow.) SalmonAid commends Congressional Reps. Miller and Thompson for their leadership in defeating this dangerous amendment. We expect that this is only the first of numerous attack on the integrity of the NMFS BiOp. The SalmonAid 2009 festival is well timed, and our coalition is actively calling on the rest of Congress to defend the ESA. Congress needs to wake up and address the real problems – which are the mismanagement of our natural resources, not our environmental laws.

How many people attended?

Jack London Square estimates that about 9,000 people came through the Festival.

What were the goals for the event?

The political goals of the festival were to educate the public about the current crisis of wild Pacific salmon, the direct effects that crisis is having on so many human communities, and the solutions for this crisis which require major improvements to the way we manage water systems in this state, as well as the restoration of key rivers and estuaries. We wanted to get our “Restore Rivers, Recover Salmon, Rebuild Jobs” message out, and at that we’ve succeeded quite well. We also wanted to collect 1000 signed postcards to President Obama and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chief Dr. Jane Lubchenco, and we got over 1300.

Other goals include educating consumers about the health and environmental differences between farmed and wild salmon, and to encourage them to “Vote with their fork” by asking for Wild Salmon only at their restaurants and supermarkets. Food at SalmonAid was provide by several fine restaurants that have taken a pledge never to serve farmed salmon.

A final goal of the SalmonAid festival was to celebrate the central role these magnificent fish play in our West Coast economy, ecology, and culture. We wanted to create a positive event with a positive message, and to have a lot of fun – which worked out quite well!

What is the most important environmental goal to your organization, the Tuolumne River Trust?

The Tuolumne River Trust’s goal was to educate the urban Bay Area public about how water conservation on our part can play a key role in salmon recovery. Over 2.5 million people in the greater Bay Area get tap water from the Tuolumne River. The Trust recently won a 5 year campaign to stop the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission from implementing a plan that would have taken an additional 25 million gallons of water per day out of this salmon-supporting river – that’s enough to fill 1,000 swimming pools per day. In a compromise decision, we now have 10 years to hit water conservation and recycling targets, so that we don’t have to revisit the idea of taking more water out of this wild and scenic river down the road. Keeping enough cold flowing water in our rivers and streams is vital to salmon being able to successfully reproduce. In the last decade, salmon populations on the Tuolumne River have crashed from 18,000 to less than 500 fish.

For concerned folks, how can they most help the salmon?

People can most help wild Pacific salmon by:
1) Communicating to elected officials (federal, state, and local) that they value wild salmon and the rivers that support us all
2) Joining their local watershed/salmon protection organization and learning about their local issues
3) Requesting that their local restaurants and supermarkets serve only wild salmon/asking “do you serve wild salmon” whenever buying fish at a restaurant or market

More information about the National Marine Fisheries Services’ recent biological opinion concerning the salmon populations and the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project can be found here.

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