"The probable demise of a species is of little concern to the Russian fleet," says Al Ristori, chairman of the Emergency Committee to Save America's Marine Resources. "The all-important factor is the amount of protein that can be extracted to compensate for failures in their agricultural programs." Apart from the considerable losses to U.S. sports and commercial fishermen, the fact is, as Congressman Robert H. Steele, a Connecticut Republican, points out, "No one knows how the ecology of the entire North Atlantic may be upset by continued destruction of the stocks."
In the past several years there have been resolutions by the New England Governors' Conference, the Massachusetts legislature, the American Fisheries Society and by Ristori's committee, all aimed at extending U.S. jurisdiction to 200 miles or more offshore, and a bill to that end has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, but its chances of passage are slight. Ristori's committee, a combination of commercial and sports fishermen and conservationists, has talked to members of Congress, distributed bumper stickers, leaflets, posters and buttons, issued press releases and articles and presented its case in Congress and before the Republican Platform Committee. Opposition has come from the State Department and from the U.S. tuna industry, which is largely based in San Diego but fishes off Latin America. The Sport Fishing Institute in Washington, D.C. recently called the U.S. tuna industry "disproportionately influential" on Administration policy and noted, "It appears to us that the collective domestic fisheries are being used as sacrificial goats in a deadly game of power politics."
(In the July issue of National Fisherman, Editor David R. Getchell wrote that he experienced "the dual emotions of humor and befuddlement" when the National Fisheries Institute picked President Nixon as its Man of the Year. Calling the choice "a laugher," Getchell pointed out that the Administration "has refused to protect the fast-disappearing deep-sea lobster stock by giving it 'shelf status,' has put off forceful action to protect our offshore banks...and has announced the shutting-down of several fisheries laboratories and the mothballing of more than half a dozen fisheries research vessels.")
Next year the United Nations will hold a world law of the sea conference, and the State Department has come up with a complicated proposal under which coastal nations would have the "preferential rights" to all coastal marine resources, but migratory oceanic species, such as tuna and billfish, would be under an international authority. Even if other nations were to support the State Department proposal—and many are opposed—it would be unlikely to take effect until 1985 at the earliest, and even then enforcement would be difficult, if not impossible. After the U.S. called for foreign fleets to use quotas to give American and Canadian fishermen a chance at their traditional fishing grounds, the Russians replied they would base any quotas on years in which they had enormous catches, and the Poles and the Rumanians joined the Russians in declaring that they could not accept inspection of catches and fishing gear below deck.
The offshore fishing problem is not confined to the Atlantic. In 1970 Soviet and Japanese fleets caught almost five billion pounds of fish and shellfish from the continental shelf of Alaska. The Russians have been fishing in Oregon and Washington waters since 1966, mainly for ocean perch and arrow-toothed flounder, and the result has been a swift drop in the U.S. catch of both species. For example, in 1966 U.S. fishermen took 21 million pounds of ocean perch; in 1971 they scraped up only 10 million pounds.
On the Pacific Coast the most valuable estuary by far is the San Francisco Bay complex, fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that drain the Central Valley of California. The system supports great numbers of salmon, steelhead, striped bass, shad, sturgeon and other fish, and its heart is the Delta, a 1,100-square-mile area of sloughs, channels, marshes and farms at the confluence of the two rivers. The threat to this ecosystem, unique in California, is not from the outside but from within through diversion of essential freshwater flows to the Delta by canals that are a part of a vast irrigation scheme to supply Southern California with water. The scheme is known as the California Water Flan, and it is officially described by the state as "a massive redistribution system designed to help correct an imbalance of water resources."
Larry Green of San Bruno, Calif., a well-known outdoors writer, angler and conservationist, has helped lead the attack on the California project, calling it "the biggest boondoggle that has ever hit California, the land of boondoggles." The project was bolstered in 1960 when state voters approved a $1.75 billion bond issue. Says Green, "The plan was sold to the voters without most people knowing what it was all about. It's not for some poor, starving Okie farmers crying, 'Give us water for our parched crops.' It chiefly will benefit a few large landholders with unwatered desert acreage in Southern California. For the monetary gain of a few, we are willing to jeopardize the Delta, a whole ecosystem with all kinds of life forms—plants, plankton, animals, fish, birds—on which it is impossible to put a price."
The California project is years away from completion, but damage already is apparent. One diversion project started by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1952, a forerunner of the state plan, now may be pumping as much as 30% to 50% of all striped-bass eggs inland to the Delta-Mendota Canal where they float in limbo. Pumping also endangers larvae and fry. At present even some adult striped bass, to quote from a state report, "find their way to the trashracks across the canal intakes and fight the current until they die of exhaustion. As the flows toward the pumps are increased we are concerned that this loss may become serious."
The Bureau of Reclamation does attempt to save some of the young fish that are pumped inland. They load them into hatchery trucks at Tracy at the head of the canal and drive them to Antioch, where they are dumped into the estuary. The number of fish trucked, which depends on the amount of water drawn into the canal, ranges from a high of 41 million in 1966 to a low of 5.5 million in 1967, a wet year. "You lose very few fish that are trucked," says a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "But there are days when the operation is sloppy, and the sea gulls start feeding."
In 1967 California started operation of its own Delta Pumping Plant and began drawing water southward through the California Aqueduct. Both the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal feed water into the newly built San Luis Reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley. There has been one unexpected result. Striped bass that normally would have been oceanbound were swept inland to the reservoir in such numbers that in 1971 three-quarters as many stripers were caught there as in all the rest of the state—including the Pacific Ocean. But overall, the diversion of water from the Delta has caused a slump in the numbers of adult fish. The striped bass population has dropped from three million adult fish in the early '60s to 1.4 million in 1972, and king salmon entering the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to spawn have declined from 450,000 in the early '50s to 225,000 two decades later.