Restoring El Dorado: A Story About California Salmon
It was an exquisite January morning — early fog dissipating, sunlight slanting down through enormous redwoods, gentle cascades murmuring in the stillness.
High overhead, a prodigious canopy of boughs sheltered the trail leading deeper into Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco.
Along the slickrock edge of Redwood Creek, I peered into every riffle and pool, in the vain hope that I might glimpse a coho salmon — just a swirl, a fin, a silvery flash. But relentless drought had starved the creek and several miles downstream a sandbar barricaded its mouth at Muir Beach.
There would be no salmon unless a heavy rain flooded the creek, carving through the sandbar and opening the entrance for fish.
Unfortunately, this was far from the biggest problem faced by the Redwood Creek cohos. To understand, we need to go back a few hundred years, when the Ohlone Indian people lived around San Francisco Bay, and just to the north were their Coast Miwok neighbors, who fished for salmon in Redwood Creek.
Before Europeans arrived in the 1700s, California was one of the richest natural landscapes on earth. In his book, The Ohlone way, ethnographer Malcom Margolin describes a traditional culture sustained by the “virtually inexhaustible” resources of coastal California. Although traditional Ohlone hunting, gathering, and fishing demanded hard work, it also allowed what some early Christian missionaries considered scandalous amounts of time for leisure and feasting.
Many California Indians knew about farming among tribes to the east, but why bother with the drudgery of plowing, planting, and weeding? Nature provided abundant wild grains, acorns and other nuts, bulbs, greens, berries, plus great beds of mussels and abalone along the shores. There were ducks, geese, cormorants, and shorebirds, sometimes in flocks so enormous that they filled the sky like living clouds. Hunters stalked the abundant herds of elk and antelope, the omnipresent deer, and small game like rabbits and quail. In the bay and ocean, the numbers of seals, sea lions, sea otters, and whales moved some early European seafarers to astonished disbelief.
And there were salmon.
Each year, from the fogbound reaches of the Pacific came cohos and chinooks — millions of them — to spawn in nearly 600 California rivers, streams, and creeks. Cohos ranged southward just beyond San Francisco Bay, and chinooks nearly reached the Los Angeles Basin. In season, the famous (and now extinct) golden California grizzlies gorged on salmon along the rivers.
The Coast Miwok people living beside Redwood Creek offered prayers to welcome the fish, used traps and spears to take what they needed, and held ceremonies to show their gratitude. Salmon were honored not only as food, but also as spiritual beings who must be treated with reverence and harvested carefully to assure that the runs stayed healthy.
Then Europeans arrived in steadily increasing numbers that peaked dramatically with the 1849 Gold Rush. Newcomers filtered into every cranny and backwater, including the homelands of Ohlone and Coast Miwok Indians.
Originally, Miwok people who lived beside the lower reaches of Redwood Creek looked out across a broad estuary meadow with lush native vegetation. Braided through it were twisting channels and tributaries where fry sheltered and grew before heading out to sea.
This all changed in the 1840s, when white farmers moved in, cleared the land for crops, and constructed levees that straightened and confined the creek, severely depleting the habitat for young developing salmon. Eventually more houses were built, patchwork lawns and invasive plants took over, a paved road came down the valley, a bridge crossed the creek, and a large parking lot impinged on the estuary — all adding to the disaster for fish.
By the time systematic counts were made, Redwood Creek’s salmon were in terrible shape. Counts over the past ten years peaked at 184 cohos in the winter of 2004–05 and in subsequent years the highest total was 40 fish in 2006–07. In the winters of 2007 and 2008, biologists found no trace of salmon. But almost miraculously, a few fish have returned each year since then, keeping the run tenuously alive.
Redwood Creek is a small watershed, less than five miles long. There are hundreds of salmon runs on the California coast, so on a grand scale this little creek might seem inconsequential.
But consider the overall process.
Salmon have been depleted in every California watershed, one river after another, one stream after another. Over many decades, the impacts have accumulated and multiplied, so that hundreds of local fish declines or extinctions have created one large-scale disaster.
The number of wild salmon in California (as opposed to those produced in hatcheries) has dwindled from an estimated 5 to 6 million, down to a couple hundred thousand — roughly a 95 percent loss of wild fish.
As the European settlement of California intensified, the ecosystems that sustained salmon were transformed. Runoff from logging, mining, and agriculture buried the spawning beds; dams blocked migrating fish; irrigation reduced and redirected river flows; water temperatures warmed in reservoirs and in deforested watersheds; urban, industrial, and agricultural pollutants degraded the streams; and dwindling salmon populations were consistently overfished.
California’s biggest salmon runs, by far, were in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, a sprawling watershed extending throughout Central Valley with a network of headwaters in the Sierra Nevada Range. Four distinct runs of chinook salmon spawned in this system, probably totaling over a million fish each year.
Hydraulic mining that started with the Gold Rush left some spawning grounds beneath as much as 100 feet of sediment. By 1870, one writer stated that the Sacramento River was “rendered practically useless for commercial purposes as a salmon stream.” More than a century after the mining boom, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system has yet to fully clear its burden of sediments.
Another large-scale impact came from dams on the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and countless other California rivers. These great feats of human engineering blocked access to hundreds of miles of spawning grounds and depleted river flows by channeling water away for irrigation and urban uses.
Everyone knew that dams would create these impacts, and so hatcheries were built to compensate for the losses of wild fish — Iron Gate, Feather River, Nimbus, Livingstone Stone, Warm Springs, Rowdy Creek, Mad River, and many more. Today the overwhelming majority of California’s salmon are artificially spawned in hatcheries, then the smolts are released into rivers so they can migrate to the Pacific. During the drought of 2014, waters below the dams were so low that some hatcheries trucked their fish to release points near saltwater
Recent studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz have concluded that as little as 5 to 10 percent of the salmon caught or sampled in Central California were spawned naturally in the wild. At the same time, experts are sharply divided about the wisdom of depending on hatcheries. Some focus on the possible effects on the long term wellbeing and genetic fitness of salmon, while others point out that hatcheries are now the only way to sustain many salmon populations and the fisheries that depend on them.
Back in Redwood Creek, the wild coho run has never been augmented by hatchery fish or releases from other streams. Instead, over the past five years, the National Park Service and its partners have done something truly remarkable — a huge effort to restore the severely damaged estuary to its original condition.
With everything from industrial backhoes to volunteer hand labor, they’ve resurrected the complex of curves and backwaters necessary for growth and survival of smolts. They’ve replanted native vegetation, created shade to keep the water cool, eliminated obstacles to free flow, relocated the parking lot, moved trails, and restored a lagoon that had vanished many decades ago. All of this makes incomparably better habitat for the endangered salmon and the steelhead, with major side benefits for a whole array of other wildlife.
Not only this, but it’s truly beautiful. And it gives a person hope, as I discovered on another afternoon, wandering beside the clearwater lagoon. The sandbar was still unbroken because of relentless drought, but I could imagine cohos in the blue waters just offshore, waiting for a good rain that would reopen the creek mouth.
I confess that my thoughts drifted back to Alaska, with feelings of gratitude and privilege. Earlier that year almost a million salmon had jammed into the river a mile from my home. And the nearby coho runs were like a dream from that vanished time when Miwok people fished in Redwood Creek.
Then I stood for a long while, watching the breeze etch dark patterns on the Redwood Creek lagoon…and I was elated to see a mother with her small daughter, sitting quietly at the water’s edge while a great blue heron hunted in the shallows just a few yards away.
Governments, organizations, and citizens all over California are working to bring back the fish and restore the environment that made them so abundant. You can’t miss the fact that, for all the dark history and all the challenges, a lot of Californians are captivated by the mystery and miracle of salmon.
The Coast Miwok people who awaited the salmon each year along Redwood Creek would have felt this kinship more deeply than we can fathom. They shaped their daily existence around the recognition that people and salmon belong to one great, mutually sustaining community of life, bound together by webs of understanding and spirituality, dependence and respect.
This may be the greatest lesson we could learn, in our efforts to restore a long term balance and sustainability in our relationship with salmon.
Months after my visit to Muir Woods, I learned that a February storm had brought the long awaited rains. A roaring flood came down Redwood Creek — broke through the sandbar — and within a few days coho salmon were spotted upstream. Not many — perhaps a dozen. Then later on, five spawning nests — or redds — were counted. If all went well, schools of bright coho smolts would gather to feed and grow in the restored estuary.
The numbers were precariously small, but it was a new generation of salmon. And where there are salmon, there is always hope.
By Richard Nelson for Encounters SalmonWorld