Bill Kier

Serving Science

Recorded: August 9, 2012

How precarious is the future of salmon in California? Fishery biologist and consultant, Bill Kier, talks about his work protecting salmon in California, and the importance of the San Francisco Bay Delta for the health of the fishery.

For the past 29 years, fisheries scientist Mr. Kier has been the senior editor and project advisor of Kier Associates, a fishery and watershed protection firm. Mr. Kier became active in fishery and watershed issues fifteen years earlier after receiving his degrees in biological sciences and zoology. Joining the California Department of Fish and Game, he worked his way to being the Chief of Fish and Game’s environmental services division and assistant to the State Resources Secretary. Following this, Mr. Kier joined the staff of the California State Senate where he was chief consultant to the committees on water, wildlife, and natural resources. During this time, he developed the Senate’s interdisciplinary Office of Research and Policy Development. Mr. Kier is known for the fierce lobbying that enabled passage of the California Salmon, Steelhead Trout and Anadromous Fisheries Program Act.

Bill Kier: Salmon in the 50 years that I’ve been involved with them have been to the brink two or three times and come back. I have remembered this particular evening in Sacramento for years and used it to explain how precarious is the future of salmon. But in the mid to late 1960’s, Sacramento fall run Chinook salmon disappeared. The Department of Fish and Game was concerned, they put a couple of biologists, Paul Jensen and Elden Hughes to work looking at the numbers trying to explain it.

Bill Kier: They decided that it called for a closure of river and ocean fishing. So we went to this meeting and biologists get up with their charts and they explain you know that salmon are just going like this, and the sportsmen all get up to line up at the podium to come to Jesus. You know it’s like “As much as we value our salmon fishing, we could take a year off.” Bill who was my immediate mentor in the old resources agency when we were just defining it, Bill just started this litany. He says – he says “Fishing isn’t the problem,” he said…and he just began to tick off all of the dams you know, all of the dewatering of the San Joaquin River, all the entire litany. He said “that’s the problem.” And he says “you know putting these guys out of work isn’t going to do a damn thing except just you know swell the unemployment ranks.” And…and he shut the meeting down. He actually terminated the commission and department’s plans to curtail the season. And so that was a powerful lesson to me, the fact that one person could be that angry and noisy and actually make a difference was for me a powerful lesson.

Bill Kier: And then the fishery goes in the toilet again in the early 80’s. Dick Hallick was probably the best central valley salmon biologist that you could find and he went in and he crunched the numbers and reported on what he had always suspected, always known and that is, is that that disappearance of Sacramento River fall run Chinook salmon could be laid directly to the construction of the Red Bluff diversion dam and the fact that the fish ladders never worked. Bill had his rant that night in 1968, Hallick delivered up his report to the advisory committee in 1988, 20 years later and says “this is really what was going on.”

Bill Kier: So it kind of strengthened my resolve, don’t look for the easy answer you know, keep digging, keep digging because there are a lot of things that play into whether you have salmon or not. But at the end of the day if you don’t have salmon, you don’t have squat. There’s a whole hell of a lot that you’ve lost in the bargain.

Bill Kier: How much water can you thieve out of the head of an estuary before the estuary begins to collapse? We are now taking more than 50% of the water out of the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary and we’re sure as hell seeing important and undesirable changes in the estuary. The writing has been plain and on the wall for decades, and yet Californians seem hell bent to destroy the most important estuary on the West Coast of North or South America. It’s complicated stuff, that’s the message for resource managers. It’s complicated stuff; learn how to make it uncomplicated.

Bill Kier: There are scientists that think if you ever find yourself standing in front of a congressional committee you’ve abandoned science. My point is that if you don’t find yourself standing in front of a congressional committee explaining something, you haven’t served science.