Tragic Remedies: A Century of Failed Fishery Policy on California's Sacramento River

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  • Discusses basic problems with fishery policies in the state of California and at the federal level that have historically contributed to the demise of some fish populations instead of halting their decline. The author uses the example of declining numbers of winter-run Chinook salmon on the Sacramento River and writes of the 1992 restocking effort to save it as another ill-advised action that takes aim at the result of the problem but ignores its source by not recognizing that the decline stems from habitat collapse. The geographical setting of the Sacramento River area and historical background of the river's usage are described; mining efforts had been the prime cause of early fish declines beginning in the 1850's, but expanding agriculture and human population needs became the main problems over the years.
  • The California Fish Commission was established in 1870 to address the problems, but, as did other similar agencies of the time, developed instead what the author terms "serialistic policies" -- the use of a series of technological solutions rather than ecological change -- to restore the river's fish. Efforts date back to 1872 when the Smithsonian Institution's U. S. Fish Commission, under the direction of Spencer Fullerton Baird, attempted to restock salmon in the river. Baird's role in the development of fishery policy is discussed briefly, and the author states that problems with fishery policies developed in the 1870's and 80's remain today because downstream symptoms of ecological decline are continuing to be addressed rather than naming and eliminating their root causes.


  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • United States Fish Commission


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


The author notes that this article is drawn from a forthcoming book, "California's Last Salmon: The Unnatural Policies of Natural Resource Agencies," to be published by the University of California Press.

Contained within

Pacific Historical Review (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Policies
  • Endangered ecosystems
  • Secretaries
  • Ichthyology
  • Fisheries
  • Ecology
  • History
  • Endangered species
  • Fisheries--History


  • United States
  • California

Physical description

p. 37-70

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