Thursday, December 11, 2008

On salmon

A striking image, and as my first attempt for a photograph for my blog, probably not the most uplifting one... but, wait. What you see here is a salmon on the Feather River in 2002, during one of the largest runs in the Sacramento river system's history. This powerful being was probably three years old, had been born in the Feather River, floated and dodged all the way out to the Pacific Ocean, to return and bring the nutrients it had gathered from the deep up to our land.

As a flyfisherman for kings and as a paddler, I've done a lot of contemplating about salmon. Biologists tell us that no tree in B.C. is free of their mark, as the bears and wolves and eagles and ravens and so many other creatures that consume enormous amounts then spread the wealth through the forests. The amount of sustenance that come as a tidal wave of beautiful bodies is near-to-unfathomable, and I've sat at the gravel bars on the Lower American and among the second-growth redwoods of Santa Cruz and wondered what our state must have looked like when we had the salmon and the bears. In a previous post, I've pondered the effects of wild pigs on our land, comparing them to bears that we've extirpated, but I know that they don't pull up the gifts of the ocean and carry them throughout the land, like Ursus horribilis did (for the bio. folks, I know that's the old name, I just prefer it).

About two weeks ago, then, I was attracted to a lecture by a geologist at the California State University, Sacramento. Professor Tim Horner has worked on salmon habitat research and restoration efforts on the American River for at least five years, and the insights he brings to the current salmon runs is fascinating and important for us all.

His general conclusion as to California's current salmon crisis is that food sources in the Pacific Ocean are either disappearing or fluctuating dramatically. As he pointed out, about 1% of the world's ocean habitat supports about half of all fish species, and most of this occurs in places where upwellings occur, like our own Monterey Bay. When he mentioned this, I immediately remembered that, as a Park Interpreter outside Santa Cruz, I experienced two summers without upwelling events, and the subsequent starving birds and shifts in the migratory patterns of different animal species. These occurred two years and three years ago, when the kings now returning to spawn should have been voraciously feeding.

However, Dr. Horner did talk extensively about current fish habitat and habits, and methods of restoration to help returning kings effectively spawn. He spoke of the increases in water exports (to Central and Southern California) from the Delta,and the shifts in tidal flow that they cause. And he spoke of the effects of dams and water management on the fishery. He had good, solid insights and data, and overall I was impressed with his presentation.

Two Sundays past, I stopped by the DFG hatchery at the base of Nimbus Dam on the American River, outside of Sacramento. The lady at the information desk told me that they had pulled just over 500 hen salmon and taken about 4 million eggs. For a comparison, they would have seen, I believe, about 30,000 hens by that time, about five years ago.

The next couple of years will be vital to returning salmon runs to our rivers. Initial numbers show that we expect an uptick in returning fish next year, but getting them out to sea in as large and genetically diverse numbers will be crucial to the long-term survival of the runs. For those of you who have stood hip-deep in waters, watching these giant forms swirl and lunge protecting their redds, smelling the rotting fish in the water, and watching the buzzards and crows feasting, you understand the power, emotion and reflection that these beings can arouse in us: noble sentiments and impulses, a greater understanding of the nature of sacrifice, a sincere awe. And if you haven't had this blessing, then head up to the hatchery at Nimbus Dam, or in Oroville on the Feather River. You won't be disappointed.

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