Russian River: Restoring Endangered Salmon


Endangered coho salmon returning to the Russian River, California
Photo by Nick Bauer

By Deborah Seiler and Mariska Obedzinski

The Russian River watershed once supported tens of thousands of coho salmon, attracting anglers from around the world. By the end of the last century, their numbers had dwindled. . .


Endangered coho salmon returning to the Russian River, California
Photo by Nick Bauer

By Deborah Seiler and Mariska Obedzinski

The Russian River watershed once supported tens of thousands of coho salmon, attracting anglers from around the world. By the end of the last century, their numbers had dwindled to a mere handful, averaging less than ten returning adults per year. Following the launch of a recovery program in 2001, they are now returning in the hundreds.

The turnaround was the result of an emergency conservation hatchery program that collected a portion of the last remaining wild juveniles and reared them to adulthood. The fish were then genotyped and spawned in a way that maximized genetic diversity for future generations. Each year since 2004, juvenile offspring have been released into historical coho streams within the watershed with the goal of reestablishing self-sustaining runs.

That’s where we come in. For the Russian River Coho Water Resources Partnership, monitoring and restoring conditions for healthy salmon are at the heart of our work. In coastal California’s highly populated, dry environment, this means addressing one of the largest bottlenecks to survival: low summer streamflow.

With assistance from Orvis, our Partnership monitors streams to identify flow-impaired reaches and implements projects that are critical for coho survival. We also research how much surface flow salmon need to survive and thrive. We have found that, in some cases, projects that return even 0.1cubic feet of water per second to a stream can mean the difference between life and death for these endangered juvenile fish.

We share this information with local stakeholders to help identify and prioritize the streams that most need flow enhancement projects. Through a collaboration between Resource Conservation Districts, non-profits, and the University of California, the Partnership assists riparian landowners diverting water from streams in finding alternative ways of getting the water they need through rainwater catchment systems, winter storage, and innovative conservation planning.

Although coho are now returning in the hundreds, there is still a long way to go before the population can make it on its own. With 95 percent of the tributaries flowing through private land, it is quite literally going to take the support of everyone in the Russian River watershed along with the backing of local, state, and federal agencies to restore the population.

Russian River landowners have shown an outpouring of support for coho recovery, cooperating on projects and allowing biologists to access to their land to stock and monitor the recovery of this critical species. They do this knowing that water allocation in California is a difficult challenge, with no easy answers.

Yet above that challenge rises the story that we hear again and again; that the red and silvery flash of migrating salmon is a cornerstone of life along the Russian River, a foundation of favorite family memories, an indispensible source of nutrients for the forest, and once – long ago, and maybe again some day – some really good fishing.

 

Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles: George Creek


George Creek culvert prior to replacement. Note width of outflow pool and overflow pipe, above right.
Photo by NNWC

George Creek Culvert Project – Nestucca River, Oregon

The Nestucca River on Oregon’s North Coast is a major producer of wild salmon (chinook, coho, chum) and trout (winter steelhead and coastal cutthroat). George Creek is a critical spawning and rearing tributary to the lower Nestucca used by all of these species.


George Creek culvert prior to replacement. Note width of outflow pool and overflow pipe, above right.
Photo by NNWC

George Creek Culvert Project – Nestucca River, Oregon

The Nestucca River on Oregon’s North Coast is a major producer of wild salmon (chinook, coho, chum) and trout (winter steelhead and coastal cutthroat). George Creek is a critical spawning and rearing tributary to the lower Nestucca used by all of these species.


Map of George Creek as a tributary to the Nestucca River
Photo by Trout Unlimited

In summer of 2014, an undersized 7-foot pipe culvert on George Creek, tributary to the Nestucca River, was replaced with a 36-foot-long bridge spanning the full width of the stream, and then some. The project, led by the Nestucca-Neskowin Watershed Council (NNWC), was a collaboration of several government and private entities, including the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, Tillamook County, and private landowners.

George Creek is the second major Nestucca River passage project to receive funding support from the Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles Campaign; a bridge spanning Farmer Creek downstream from George Creek was completed in 2013. The George Creek project reconnects more than 1.5 miles of mainstem habitat heavily used by ESA-listed Oregon Coast coho salmon, as well as numerous other species.


After: New 36-foot concrete bridge oever George Creek allows full passage for all stages of salmonids at all
Photo by NNWC

Tuesday Tip: Tom Rosenbauer on Understanding Salmon and Steelhead Flies

Trout fishers who want to test themselves against salmon and steelhead are faced with a whole new range of flies, so what should you do? Your best bet is to do some research about the best patterns for your local waters and. . .

Trout fishers who want to test themselves against salmon and steelhead are faced with a whole new range of flies, so what should you do? Your best bet is to do some research about the best patterns for your local waters and species. Ask at your local fly shop, or search the Web. But there are a few basics that can help you get started.

Western Environmental Law Center: Protecting Wild Fish


A Beautiful School of Chinook Salmon
Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

Orvis Guest Blog
By Pete Frost, Attorney, Western Environmental Law Center

Protecting Wild Fish in Partnership with Orvis

“Salmon ran in runs so thick you couldn’t see the bottoms of rivers, so thick people were afraid to put their boats in for fear they would capsize, so thick they would keep people awake at night with the slapping of their tails against the water, so thick you could hear the runs for miles before you could see them.”—Derrick Jensen

This scene —a West Coast stream teeming with wild salmon—was once commonplace.

But now, everything has changed….

Written by: Pete Frost, Attorney, Western Environmental Law Center


A Beautiful School of Chinook Salmon
Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

Protecting Wild Fish in Partnership with Orvis

“Salmon ran in runs so thick you couldn’t see the bottoms of rivers, so thick people were afraid to put their boats in for fear they would capsize, so thick they would keep people awake at night with the slapping of their tails against the water, so thick you could hear the runs for miles before you could see them.”—Derrick Jensen

This scene —a West Coast stream teeming with wild salmon—was once commonplace.

But now, everything has changed.

Wild salmon and steelhead runs have been seriously threatened by the “four H’s”: degraded habitat, hydroelectric dams, commercial harvest, and hatcheries. Most wild salmon and steelhead runs in the West are dwindling, and many runs are now less than 10 percent of historical numbers, and hatchery fish—not wild fish—dominate these runs.

Of the four H’s, hatcheries have received only recent attention, yet they can significantly harm wild fish. Within the last decade, fishery biologists agree that hatchery fish can prey on, out-compete, or interbreed with wild fish, further diminishing their numbers.

To address the harm caused by hatcheries, the nonprofit group I work for, the Western Environmental Law Center, is focusing on hatcheries where genetically significant runs of wild salmon and steelhead still exist, and where there is still a chance to fully recover them.

We can reduce the number of hatchery fish released into our rivers, change the timing of when they are released, or incorporate more wild fish into broodstock, and so help recover wild salmon and steelhead runs. Our ultimate goal is to re-establish wild fisheries, so the people and communities that have traditionally enjoyed wild fisheries can once again do so.

We are using the power of the law to reform hatcheries on the Mad and Trinity rivers in California, and on the Sandy and McKenzie rivers in Oregon. We are also reviewing hatchery operations in other river basins in Oregon to ensure wild fish have the chance to recover.

Reforming salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the West will not be easy and we have hard work ahead of us, as these efforts will likely continue for years. That’s why we are honored to partner with Orvis—a company truly dedicated to protecting wild fish. As a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, we rely on support from individuals, charitable foundations, and business partners such as Orvis to help preserve and restore the West’s wildlife and wild lands.

With the support of Orvis, we will continue fighting to protect wild salmon and steelhead so that one day we may again witness healthy runs of wild fish rushing through our Western streams and rivers.

About WELC
Founded in 1993, the Western Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit, public-interest environmental law firm that uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wild lands, and communities of the American West.

Author Bio
Attorney Pete Frost leads the Western Environmental Law Center’s efforts to protect and restore wild salmon and steelhead. Frost was raised in Oregon, graduated from Stanford University, and earned his J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law, where he was editor of the Oregon Law Review. For more than two decades, he has represented local angling groups and national nonprofit organizations in court to restore wild salmon and steelhead runs. From 1992 to 1999, Frost was an attorney for and directed the Western Regional Office of the National Wildlife Federation. In 2000, he received the David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award for Environmental Litigation.


Pete Frost
Photo by WELC

Tuesday Tip: Understanding Salmon and Steelhead Flies

Trout fishers who want to test themselves against salmon and steelhead are faced with a whole new range of flies, so what should you do? Your best bet is to do some research about the best patterns for. . .

Trout fishers who want to test themselves against salmon and steelhead are faced with a whole new range of flies, so what should you do? Your best bet is to do some research about the best patterns for your local waters and species. Ask at your local fly shop, or search the Web. But there are a few basics that can help you get started.

Photo of the Day: Maya’s First Salmon


7-year-old Maya proudly displays her first two sockeye salmon.
Photo by Glenn Cain

How soon should kids learn to fish? Take a page from Glenn Cain’s playbook! Glenn sent us the following message as well as this great photo of his budding angler: . . .


7-year-old Maya proudly displays her first two sockeye salmon.
Photo by Glenn Cain

How soon should kids learn to fish? Take a page from Glenn Cain’s playbook! Glenn sent us the following message as well as this great photo of his budding angler:

We fish the Russian and Kenai Rivers in Alaska each year during the sockeye salmon run. This year, we intended for our granddaughter, Maya, to try her hand at salmon, since she has done well with bass and trout. Maya is seven years old, and these are her first two salmon. This was her first time in Orvis waders and also wading into the current at water’s edge. She has her own 5-weight fly rod for trout, which she has become very adept at using. She graduated to a 10-weight Helios for the salmon and did very well, as you can see.

A 1,000 Miles Campaign Update from Idaho’s Pole Creek

Written by:  R. Chad Chorney


Steelhead must travel hundreds of miles to reach Pole Creek. TU and Orvis are helping to ensure
that these gorgeous fish reach their spawning destinations.
Photo courtesy TU

[Editor’s note: Here’s an update on one of many projects being funded by the Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles Campaign.]

In Idaho, chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout have all been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That’s the bad news.

Written by:  R. Chad Chorney


Steelhead must travel hundreds of miles to reach Pole Creek. TU and Orvis are helping to ensure that these gorgeous fish reach their spawning destinations.
Photo courtesy TU

[Editor’s note: Here’s an update on one of many projects being funded by the Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles Campaign.]

In Idaho, chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout have all been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that some of the best remaining spawning and rearing habitat for these fish is found in the central part of the state, particularly in the upper Salmon River drainage. Pole Creek, a small tributary of the upper Salmon near Stanley, Idaho, is one of these waters.  Chinooks, steelhead, and bull trout have historically spawned and reared juvenile fish in Pole Creek, and the creek itself has been designated as critical habitat for recovery of these species.


Culverts limit access to spawning habitat, and this one will be replaced with a bridge.
Photo courtesy TU

However, problems persist. Past irrigation practices on Pole Creek resulted in lengthy stream segments going dry during the summer. Since the early 1980s, some improvements with respect to water use have been made, but barriers to fish migration still exist.

Two culverts on Pole Creek limit access to critical habitat for salmon, trout, and steelhead, and have fallen into disrepair. The U.S. Forest Service and key private landowners hope to remove these existing culverts and replace them with bridges this summer. Combined with modifications to current irrigation diversions, removal of the two culverts will open up an additional six miles of quality habitat on Pole Creek. This habitat will allow access for upstream migration and provide productive aquatic habitat for all native trout.


Bull trout are endangered, so protecting their spawning grounds is vital.
Photo courtesy TU

Anyone who has swung a fly to native, wild steelhead or chinooks knows how special these fish are. The steelhead and salmon of central Idaho are a little extra special. Somehow, these fish navigate eight dams and swim over 900 miles to reach their natal waters. Culverts such as those found on Pole Creek often present a final barrier to successful migration and reproduction. The Orvis/TU 1,000 Miles Campaign will help give these special fish a much-needed boost on their road to recovery.

R. Chad Chorney is Trout Unlimited’s Southern Idaho Project Manager


Here’s an example of improved spawning habitat, after the effects from poor irrigation practices have been mitigated.
Photo courtesy TU

An Upstream Journey: Dispatch #3, the Salmon of the Columbia River


Bob Rees displays a hatchery salmon that is a sad replacement for the wild fish that once swarmed up the Columbia River.
All photos by Paul Moinester

[Editor’s Note: Paul Moinester has embarked on a six-month, 20,000-mile adventure to exploring the upstream battle to protect wild fish and their habitat. (Check out his introductory post here.) He will be posting dispatches on the Fly Fishing blog throughout his journey.]

As the rain pelted down and the boat raucously shook in the choppy Columbia River, young Cole weathered the elements and fought the spring-run Chinook salmon tooth and nail. With Cole’s rod doubled over and the salmon thrashing right below the river’s grey surface, Bob dropped his net into the water and pulled up a. . .

Bob Rees displays a hatchery salmon that is a sad replacement for the wild fish that once swarmed up the Columbia River. (All photos by Paul Moinester.)

[Editor’s Note: Paul Moinester has embarked on a six-month, 20,000-mile adventure to exploring the upstream battle to protect wild fish and their habitat. (Check out his introductory post here.) He will be posting dispatches on the Fly Fishing blog throughout his journey.]

As the rain pelted down and the boat raucously shook in the choppy Columbia River, young Cole weathered the elements and fought the spring-run Chinook salmon tooth and nail. With Cole’s rod doubled over and the salmon thrashing right below the river’s grey surface, Bob dropped his net into the water and pulled up a chrome-colored salmon fresh from the Pacific.

I had come to Tillamook on the Oregon coast to fish the tail end of the winter steelhead run. My host in Tillamook was Bob Rees, a longtime fishing guide and avid conservationist. Bob regularly travels to Salem and Washington DC to advocate on behalf of wild fish protection, and I had connected with him during his last trip to the District.

Bob was instrumental in helping me focus my trip and challenged me to tackle the truly important issues threatening wild fish populations. So on day two when the opportunity arose to spend the day with Bob fishing on the Columbia River, I gladly stowed my fly rod and picked up a spinning rod for the first time this trip.

Dams throughout the Columbia watershed cut off salmon from their spawning grounds.

The Columbia and Snake River Basin was once home to one of the largest salmon runs in the world. Conservative estimates peg the annual return at somewhere between 15 and 17 million salmon, with some estimates as high as 30 million per year. But after decades of overfishing and a series of dams erected on the Snake (the largest tributary to the Columbia) and Columbia Rivers, the number of returning salmon to the basin has plummeted. The annual run now stands at a dismal 1.5 million fish, approximately 75 percent of which are stocked hatchery fish.

Driving through the Pacific Northwest, you quickly gain an appreciation of how integrated salmon are in the cultural fabric. Salmon-inspired art graces city streets, salmon are pictured on many Oregon license plates, and you can hardly turn a corner without running into Salmon Street or Coho Lane. But nowadays this connection is far more spiritual than it is economic.

As Bob told me in the early morning darkness on our drive up to the Columbia, the Oregon coast was built on the backs of salmon. The craggy shore was once dotted with canneries as far as the eye could see. These canneries caught as much salmon as they could, canned it, and shipped it to dinner tables across the United States. Decades of overharvesting crippled the salmon population. And the onslaught of dams erected on the Snake and Columbia during the ’30s and ’40s were described to me as “a series of nails in the salmon coffin.”

When the salmon population disappeared up and down the coast, these towns were forced to either reinvent themselves or go belly up.  Eighty years later, there is still a segment of Oregon’s coastal economy that is reliant on salmon, but it is a fraction of what it once was. A small but steadfast group of commercial fisherman still prowl these rough waters. And a handful of guides like Bob still rely on the thrill of catching salmon and the possibility of a fresh slab for dinner to draw tourists to these waters.

Bob Rees spends as much time working toward salmon restoration as he does fishing.

Despite the precipitous decline in the Pacific Northwest salmon population, there is still hope for the return of these majestic creatures. The region is home to a sizable number of conservation organizations such as Save Our Wild Salmon and dedicated individuals working around the clock to support and bolster the fledgling wild salmon population.

Bob Rees is one of these dedicated individuals. He makes his living guiding on Oregon’s beautiful coastal rivers, helping individuals fulfill their dreams of catching salmon and steelhead. But Bob probably spends more time volunteering for conservation organizations throughout the Northwest than he does guiding. What drives Bob is a profound respect for these fish and a deep-seated belief that we are all responsible for rectifying the environmental devastation wrought on these spectacular creatures.

According to Bob, the day we spent on the Columbia with four of his clients trolling for spring Chinook was about average these days. We had seven lines in the water for roughly 10 hours, and we had three bites and landed two fish–both of which were hatchery salmon. I did my best to manipulate my spinning rod so that my bait was properly presented to the fish, but it hardly budged all day, save for it slightly shaking in the chop and wind.

On the way back to Bob’s house after our day on the water, we made a quick stop at Costco to pick up a few items for a party. As we passed the fish aisle, my eye caught a display of salmon that prominently displayed the sign “Fresh Farm-Raised Atlantic Salmon – $7.99 a lb.” Having just spent the day in the cold and rain fishing in what was once one of the most prosperous salmon regions in the world, that sign felt like a nauseating affront to the proud culture and history of this region.

A long day of trolling produced just two fish in the net.

With a little more forethought and self-control, enough wild salmon could exist within the Columbia River basin to feed the entire region and beyond. And that is what Bob, Save Our Wild Salmon, and their partner organizations are working towards: a day when the Columbia River and its tributaries are so chock-full of salmon that purchasing farm-raised Atlantic salmon in Oregon would be considered an act of lunacy.

For more information on the work being done to restore wild salmon populations to the Columbia and Snake River Basin, please visit the Save Our Wild Salmon website.

 

Video: The Good Ol’ Days in Alaska’s Katmai National Park

Here’s some great old footage, from the IGFA archives, of fly fishing in Alaska’s Katmai region. When I guided on the Alaska Peninsula back in the mid-1990s, I often wondered what things were like in the “Good Ol’ Days,” and this video offers a glimpse into that period before there was a real fly-fishing industry in the bush. I especially love the narrator’s exhortations to the angler who has hooked a big rainbow on a Dardevle spoon: “Ride him, fella! Ride him!”

Here’s some great old footage, from the IGFA archives, of fly fishing in Alaska’s Katmai region. When I guided on the Alaska Peninsula back in the mid-1990s, I often wondered what things were like in the “Good Ol’ Days,” and this video offers a glimpse into that period before there was a real fly-fishing industry in the bush. I especially love the narrator’s exhortations to the angler who has hooked a big rainbow on a Dardevle spoon: “Ride him, fella! Ride him!”

Float plane