A row of fishing boats are shown at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)
A group of San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts is demanding that the federal government close the just-revived commercial salmon season off the Oregon and California coasts, a move bound to further inflame relations between farmers and salmon fishermen.
In a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed Thursday, the San Joaquin River Group Authority contends that federal fishery managers acted improperly when they recently reopened the commercial salmon season after two years of unprecedented closures.
The suit adds another dimension to the fisherman-farmer fight that has grown increasingly bitter in recent years, when water deliveries to farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley were cut in part to protect delta smelt and salmon migrating through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The irrigation districts asking a federal judge to halt this year's commercial catch are on the east side of the valley and were not affected by the delta pumping cutbacks. Instead, they are concerned that if Central Valley salmon numbers don't rebound, they will be forced to release more water to sustain runs in the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries.
If the goal is to return the fishery to a healthier state, "let's stop commercial fishing for a period of time," said Allen Short, coordinator of the river authority and general manager of the Modesto Irrigation District.
San Francisco, which draws water from a tributary of the San Joaquin, is a member of the authority but abstained in the vote to file the lawsuit, Short said.
Plunging Chinook salmon numbers prompted federal authorities to take the unprecedented step of closing the commercial season off Oregon and California in 2008 and 2009. Last year, a small catch was allowed. Based on rising salmon counts, fishery managers this spring lifted more restrictions.
"If we felt [the catch] was too large, we'd be screaming too," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "We're looking at this fish coming back and giving ourselves a sufficient margin of error. I think we've been exercising an ample amount of caution."
Grader called the lawsuit "mean-spirited" and accused the irrigation districts of trying to intimidate salmon groups that have backed cutbacks in delta pumping to protect migrating salmon.
"I don't think it's mean-spirited at all," Short responded. "Let's reestablish [salmon populations] and then … you can go back to fishing. You can't fish for something that's not there."
Representatives of the National Marine Fisheries Service could not be reached for comment.