Baker Beach

Sen. Wiener’s ambitious bill aims to protect the ocean—as well as the state’s estimated $45 billion ocean-based economy—by tightly regulating what goes in it. 

Introduced by State Senator Scott Wiener (D-SF) and backed by a diverse array of environmental and business interests such as the Ocean Conservancy and the Pacific Shellfish Growers Association, SB 69, “The Ocean Resiliency Act,” tackles questions as big as the ocean itself. How much waste does California put in the ocean? How much more can our oceans take? And how will climate change amplify our mistreatment of our natural resources?

“Our ocean, particularly off the West Coast, is being badly damaged in terms of acidification levels and lack of carbon sequestration,” Senator Weiner said. “We’re at risk of losing entire ecosystems. If we’re serious about healthy oceans and climate change, we need this bill.”

One clear winner for cleaner and better regulated waters off the California coast would be the commercial and recreational salmon industry, an estimated $1.4 billion dollar business. And a lot of those dollars are earned and spent in the Bay Area.

“San Francisco has been greatly enriched by having a commercial salmon industry in its midst,” John McManus, President of the Golden Gate Salmon Association said. “Every time you see a harbor here, there’s a good chance many of those boats are fishing for salmon. And they are contributing to the economy, not just in commercial fish but in a booming sports fishing industry. SB 69 will go a long way towards aiding and rebuilding populations to make salmon more plentiful.”

Since salmon spawn in freshwater rivers and then feed out in the ocean, they are the clearest natural connection between our river system and our ocean system. Keep the rivers and oceans safe and healthy, salmon advocates like McManus advise, and healthy salmon will follow.  

Two parts of the complex bill, the thermal pollution issue near Oroville Dam and a pilot program for genetic testings at hatcheries, will specifically aid salmon, according to McManus.

Soon after the Oroville Dam was constructed in 1968, engineers needed a power source, so they installed a series of turbines in an artificial side channel down river from the dam. Water in the side channel created a shallow reservoir, which in turn affected salmon populations. Although the main spillway of the Oroville Dam was recently repaired after its catastrophic February 2017 failure, the problem with thermal pooling has gone unaddressed for years.

“The water sits in the shallow reservoir and gets hot, and then it flows back into the Feather River, making it too warm for salmon to hatch their eggs,” McManus said. SB 69 would require the Department of Water Resources to address this issue.

The genetic testing of salmon pilot program could replace the traditional program of coded-wire tagging of hatchery fish to track vital information such as release date and release size. “We can’t shoot a tag into their nose until they are four inches long,” McManus said. “But with advances in DNA technology, we just have to take a small sample of the fish’s genetic markers and don’t have to punch pieces of metal into them. Then we need a tissue bank of the brood stock so that when the offspring come back, you can figure out who’s who.”

To insure the salmon reach the ocean, a healthy river system is needed. Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the bill aims to minimize sedimentary pollution in the rivers, which is a real impediment to water quality and salmon health.

The bill also addresses a longstanding loophole that has allowed timber harvest plans to go unscrutinized. Cal Fire is required to submit timber harvest plans to a regional board, but there’s no requirement for that board to actually review these plans, according to Oppenheim.

“The timber harvest plans are out of compliance, so this bill requires they review the plans and determine consistency,” Oppenheim said. “We need this oversight to occur.”

Oppenheim also said the bill addresses three crucial areas to prevent soil from filling up streams: inadequate construction of logging roads; the harvest of timber on grades that are too steep and thus allows too much soil in the stream once the trees are removed; and the harvest of timber too close to stream beds and waterways.

Sean Bothwell, Executive Director for the California Coastkeeper Alliance, believes SB 69 will protect the important ecosystem that lies between the rivers and the ocean: the wetlands. This crucial and sensitive habitat sequesters carbon, provides protection from sea-level rise, and creates an important sanctuary for marine life. (In the Bay Area, the resurrection of the Cargill construction plans right on the Bay have caused real alarm for environmentalists who say the science is clear: that area needs to be restored as wetlands.)

Bothwell said the bill also addresses ocean acidification. “This bill is the very first time that California has taken direct action on ocean acidification,” Bothwell said.  Better monitoring of wastewater treatment plants, storm water run-off and, eventually, getting a handle on the egregious amount of agricultural run-off into the ocean are parts of the bill that explicitly address ocean acidification.

Although there are many months of negotiation and debate ahead, all of these experts are hopeful of its eventual passage.

“We will work with all comers who want to work on the spirit of this bill,” Oppenheim said.

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