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.

 

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