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A bleak spring

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This spring may mark a decidedly nasty turning point for California food lovers as two of our most treasured highlights of the seasonal table seem to be in danger of disappearing.

Thursday afternoon, federal officials meeting in Seattle closed down California’s and Oregon’s salmon fishery. This is the first closure in the more than 150-year history of the fishery, which was thriving as recently as 2004.

At the same time, reports say some asparagus farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area are “rolling” their fields, taking them out of production. In the last five years, asparagus acreage in California, which grows 85% of the fresh asparagus in the United States, has declined from 36,000 acres to only 16,000. In the 1950s, as many as 75,000 acres were harvested.

The culprit is a combination of increasing labor costs — asparagus is extremely labor-intensive because it must be cut by hand — and competition from cheap imports grown in Mexico and South America.

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The salmon crash came much more suddenly. As recently as 2004, California fishermen were catching more than 7 million pounds of king salmon a year, second only to Alaska. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, that had plummeted to 1.2 million pounds. Oregon, which fishes the same schools, saw its catch fall from 5 million to 1.3 million pounds in the same period. This year looks even worse: Projected “returns” — salmon returning to spawn — in the Sacramento River are less than half what fisheries managers say is required to ensure a viable population.

The cause of the drop is in some dispute. According to news reports, scientists point to poor ocean conditions, perhaps related to global warming. But fishermen say a bigger factor is the fragile condition of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta itself, which has suffered from pollution and increased water exports to Southern California.

-- Russ Parsons


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