News & Stories

  • Humans devastated California's chinook salmon. Now they want to save it

    September 13, 2018

    Christian Science Monitor By Martin Kuz

    Dave Vogel already knew that levees and dams had devastated the coastal salmon population in California’s longest river. The surprise for the fisheries scientist arrived when he saw the video footage of young salmon clustered beneath bridges in the watery depths.

    City and county agencies in Northern California hired Mr. Vogel to provide research on several bridge-construction and retrofit projects along the Sacramento River starting in the late 1980s. He surveyed the riverbed with radar and underwater cameras to gauge the potential impact of the bridge work on the California coastal chinook salmon, whose population has plummeted since the turn of the 20th century.

    Prior studies found that juvenile salmon gravitated to the river’s shoreline for protection. Vogel’s videos instead revealed a fish tale of desperate adaptation born of the loss of habitat. The young chinook take refuge some 20 feet below the surface behind bridge piers and other artificial barriers, an imperfect alternative that still exposes them to bass, trout, and other predators.

    The footage gave Vogel an idea. Dams prevent tree debris from flowing downstream, depriving young fish of cover from predators and the swift current. He envisioned recreating the salmon’s habitat in deep water to help the fish mature and grow stronger, improving their odds of surviving to make the 300-mile migration to the Pacific Ocean.

    Last year, two decades after that inspiration, tugboat crews installed 25 salmon shelters in the river near Redding, Calif., 160 miles north of Sacramento. Each six-ton shelter consists of large almond tree limbs or walnut root wads bolted to a massive limestone boulder. The protruding boughs and roots create a kind of maze that allows juvenile salmon to evade bigger fish and the current’s constant pull.

    River Garden Farms, a family-owned, large-scale farm based on the river, invested $400,000 in the shelters and obtained a $200,000 federal grant for the three-year pilot project, the first of its kind in the country. The shelters count as one of dozens of projects planned, ongoing, or completed on the Sacramento River since the Northern California Water Association (NCWA) launched a salmon recovery program four years ago that builds upon earlier efforts.

    “The old attitude was, ‘It’s going to take 100 to 200 years for nature to heal itself,’” Vogel says. “Now the attitude is, ‘Let’s start solving one problem at a time.’”


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  • Judge puts controversial Healdsburg logging plan on hold

    September 12, 2018

    Santa Rosa Press Democrat by Mary Callahan

    Planned logging near a Healdsburg stream that provides some of the last refuge in the region for wild coho salmon has been put on hold after a court decision overturned a timber harvest plan for the 160-acre site.

    Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau determined last month that the plan approved by Cal Fire last fall inadequately analyzed potential impacts for endangered and threatened fish species in Felta Creek and the greater Russian River watershed into which it drains.

    Chouteau also agreed with neighbors’ claim that property owner Ken Bareilles failed to sufficiently address the effects of logging trucks on narrow roadways and five rural bridges they would travel to haul lumber from the remote parcel.

    The resolution is unlikely to be the final chapter in the dispute, with both sides anticipating ongoing legal battles.

    “The land isn’t safe until it has a conservation easement on it or a harvest plan geared for limited, smaller-scale logging, said Lucy Kotter, a one-time forester and a spokeswoman for Friends of Felta Creek, which was formed to block the plan.

    Bareilles, a Eureka attorney, said Wednesday he still hopes he can start logging in the spring and intended to revise and resubmit his timber harvest plan for approval in the meantime.

    He said concerns regarding traffic and bridges would be more easily addressed than those related to at-risk fish populations, but he said a sustained rise in lumber prices meant he wouldn’t lose any money while he worked the problems out.

    “This is a bump in the road, if you want to call it that — this court ruling,” Bareilles said. “But it just delays us.”

    Chouteau’s Aug. 20 decision is the latest round in what’s now a year-and-a-half battle fought by neighbors including Kotter and environmentalists to halt the logging project near Felta Creek, a cold, clear stream which provides rare habitat for diminishing salmon and steelhead trout runs once abundant on the North Coast. Even in years when spawning wild salmon have failed to show anywhere else in the area, they have returned to Felta Creek, local biologists say.

    Opponents had managed for several months to stall approval of the logging plan, which endured two rounds of public comment and revisions before it won approval from Cal Fire on Nov. 17.

    By then, some of the steepest slopes had been removed from the logging area and provisions to safeguard against hillside erosion and other environmental harms had been strengthened.

    But Friends of Felta Creek sued the state forestry agency, arguing that protections in the document remained inadequate, given the proposed large-scale logging, the vulnerability of the landscape and the narrow, winding canyon access. They secured a temporary injunction on any logging while the case was pending.

    “Really, what we’re concerned about, is once they start cutting, they’re going to cut hard and they’re going to cut deep,” said Bob Legge, policy and outreach coordinator for the Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group. “And when you do anything in a fragile watershed like that, you’re going to have complications that go on for years.”

    Bareilles and his wife, Linda, bought the land — which is zoned for timber production — in 2015 for $2.5 million with plans to log redwood and Douglas fir and then resell it for homesites.

    Bareilles has a somewhat checkered past as a developer and has twice been convicted in Humboldt County for violating regulations shielding waterways and wildlife habitat, among other offenses. Critics in Sonoma County say his past is part of their concern.

    But Bareilles has repeatedly said that maintaining the natural beauty of the land and the watershed is in his own self- interest, so he can maintain the profitability of the property.

    He said several conservation agencies have explored the possibility of buying the property but were rejected because “they don’t want to pay us anything for the timber.”

    Attorney Tom Lippe, who represents Friends of Felta Creek, said there remain many opportunities to challenge Bareilles’ plans.

    The Russian River watershed is listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act because of excess sediment accumulated over decades of human activity, including logging, farming, road building and other development.

    “This project is going to put more sediment in the river and in the streams,” said Lippe, posing another risk for imperiled fish species.

    “The characterization that this is a speed bump is in the eye of the beholder,” Lippe said.

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  • Salt River restoration gets $1.13 million boost

    September 12, 2018

    Eureka Times Standard By Shomik Mukherjee

    A $1.13 million restoration award from a state agency will buoy efforts to excavate the Salt River watershed, the seven-mile channel of the Eel River that local conservationists have spent decades trying to restore.

    The money comes from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which this year handed out $27.8 million to a diverse geographical spread of water body restoration efforts. The Salt River watershed, running from near Fortuna to a Pacific Ocean estuary, is just one of those projects.

    “There’s a lot of history and awareness of Salt River here,” said Matt Wells of the agency’s grants branch. “This is the culmination of a lot of efforts, both externally and internally.”

    The new financial boost will help the Humboldt County Resource Conservation District work toward restoring an additional mile-and-a-half stretch of the river during its next construction season. By the end of this season, the district will have restored 4.5 miles of the watershed.

    Navigating the Salt River channel became impossible some time in the 20th century, when decades of logging and agricultural work had deposited too much clay sediment into the watershed for water to continue flowing. In 1987, the RCD was formed by popular vote to restore parts of the Eel River.

    Since then, getting the Salt River watershed back to where it was hasn’t been an easy task.

    “We’ve had years when we aren’t able to implement construction as much as we’d like to be able to,” said Jill Demers, the RCD’s executive director. “Some years due to project funding and other years due to the landowners.”

    Getting a hold of permits, going around the individual preferences of over 45 landowners and, above all, winning funding have all been a gargantuan effort — one with numerous setbacks, Demers said. Even the $1.13 million won’t make any sort of dramatic impact, though Demers emphasized that an award of this size is always “wonderful” news.

    But achieving a full restoration will take more awards of this size and magnitude, she added, especially when a lengthy contracting period — around six months — sits between winning an award and getting the funds.

    “It’s not an easy ‘get in there and dig it out,’” Demers said. “A process like this requires hydrologic analyses. The system requires a lot of long-time maintenance.”

    Why is it so important the Salt River watershed be restored? Without a channel to drain into, excess water on the mainland can cause perpetual flooding and deny fish and wildlife a steady stream of water to rely on.

    One of the five tributaries, or streams, of the Salt River is Williams Creek — though for much of the year, no one would know it driving on state Route 211 near Ferndale.

    On the bridge above the tributary there’s a sign that says “Salt River,” but the water system has become so degraded over the years that for most summer and autumn months the stream below looks like a dry field. It’s only during the winter that rainfall helps Williams Creek live up to its highway sign.

    Much is at stake for the Salt River restoration, which gets almost 100 percent of its funding from awards like these, Demers said. City entities and local agencies have made timely contributions to support the cause, she said.

    More than a few times since 1987, the process has hit a proverbial wall of clay sediment, she said, but a few individuals, including former 1st District Supervisor Jimmy Smith, have ensured water continues to flow through the Salt River.

    “The project as it is today came together with [Smith]’s longtime support,” Demers said of the late North Coast politician, who died in 2016. “We wouldn’t be out here without his vision.”

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  • Gene Pollution Threatens Wild Salmon. A Solution: Sterile Farmed Fish

    August 27, 2018

    Oceans Deeply by Alastair Bland

    Scientists are proving the viability of a new idea to protect wild Atlantic salmon, a species that once spawned in great numbers in rivers from Portugal to the Arctic, as far west as Greenland and Canada and as far south as New York. Today, the Atlantic salmon is endangered or threatened in much of its range, with populations depleted by dams, water pollution and overfishing.

    The idea? Sterilizing their farmed relatives.

    A new study published in Royal Society Open Science found that triploid farmed salmon – that is, fish modified to contain three sets of chromosomes rather than the usual two – are essentially incapable of reproducing. Making farmed fish into triploids involves a process of pressure shocking their eggs minutes after fertilization, explained David Murray, a marine scientist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, who led the research. Experts said the approach could be used by salmon-farming companies to alleviate genetic pollution of wild populations, which happens when escaped farmed salmon breed with native Atlantic salmon and weaken their ability to survive or reproduce.

    Several decades ago, conservationists and scientists began to suspect that the rise of the salmon-farming industry had something to do with the fall of wild Atlantic salmon, especially when farmed salmon escaped from their nets into the ocean.
    In a 2000 experiment, researchers tagged both farmed and native Atlantic salmon and released them into the River Imsa in Norway. The farm-born fish were “inferior” in their new environment, according to the published results, and were less than a third as likely as the wild fish to succeed in breeding. But by competing for resources, their presence appeared to harm the productivity of the native salmon.

    “Farmed salmon have gone through several generations of selection for traits like rapid growth and resistance to certain diseases that are desirable for commercial production but not necessarily for survival in the wild,” said Ian Fleming, a professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, who led that study nearly 20 years ago.

    Those findings didn’t prove that escaped farmed fish would reduce the long-term success of wild salmon, but they did support the hypothesis. Much research in the years since has backed the same conclusion and shown how, over time, escaped farmed salmon that breed with wild salmon spread genes that diminish the genetic fitness of wild Atlantic salmon.

    Interbreeding isn’t the only risk that farmed salmon pose to wild populations. For instance, fish farms also can be breeding sites for sea lice parasites in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But there is mounting evidence that what is called “genetic introgression” is a significant problem in the Atlantic, and it has been widely documented in rivers in Norway, home of the world’s largest remaining wild salmon runs and also a center of the salmon-farming industry.

    Sten Karlsson, a scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), has studied how quickly wild populations are becoming adulterated by the genes of farm-born fish. In a paper published in 2016 in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, Karlsson and three coauthors reported “significant farmed genetic introgression” in 52 percent of the 147 Norwegian salmon rivers they studied. Another paper to which he contributed in 2017, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, found that the interbreeding between farmed salmon and wild salmon had negative effects on “fitness-related traits” – most notably causing salmon to migrate from the sea into freshwater to spawn at a younger age. This means they were smaller, and because size is directly related to a salmon’s reproductive success, these genetically compromised fish would in theory face lower odds of producing offspring, according to the paper.

    In a 2017 paper in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, Torbjørn Forseth, a senior research scientist at NINA, concluded that genetic introgression from farmed to wild salmon is the largest current threat to the persistence of Atlantic salmon runs in Norway and other nations.

    Today, as salmon farming booms and wild salmon numbers wane almost everywhere, the new research suggests one of the most effective ways to prevent the interbreeding of farmed and wild salmon is the use of triploid fish in commercial production.

    “We show that female triploids are sterile and do not develop gonads,” Murray and his coauthors wrote in their study. And while males still produce sperm capable of fertilizing wild salmon eggs, the development and survival of the fertilized eggs was less than 1 percent compared with their two-chromosome counterparts. He said the Norwegian egg supplier AquaGen took an interest in the research, providing space and materials.

    The researchers also looked at the nutritional value of triploid fillets. It turned out the triploid salmon flesh contained lower fat overall – not necessarily a desirable thing in terms of marketability – but the ratio of healthy omega-3 fatty acids as a portion of total fat content was higher.

    “What this means is that if we can manage to get triploid fish to have the same amount of fat content as the diploids, then they should have significantly higher nutritional benefits to human beings,” Murray said. Improving the production of total body fat could require selecting new genetic strains of Atlantic salmon while also optimizing feed formulas and making them more sustainable, he noted.

    Karlsson believes the salmon-farming industry should lose no time in incorporating triploid fish into their production systems in an effort to save wild salmon. He said it’s becoming increasingly clear from the mounting body of research that the salmon-farming industry could choose to make its fish almost entirely sterile.

    “I think that there is an urgent need to stop or drastically reduce escapees and genetic introgression into wild salmon populations,” Karlsson said.

    As the scientific evidence accumulates that escaped farmed salmon weaken the survival fitness of wild populations, a fresh look at fish-farming technologies will be in order, the researchers said.

    “There was a time when we were asking, first of all, ‘Do salmon really escape?’ and then, ‘Do they really enter the rivers?’ and then, ‘Do they really interbreed with wild salmon, and if so, do they leave offspring, and if so, does it really change the wild populations?’” Karlsson said. “Now, the next really big question is whether the genetic introgression actually has a direct effect on the productivity of the wild salmon populations, and all the evidence and theoretical framework is pointing that way.”

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  • West Marin creek project underway to boost coho habitat

    August 27, 2018

    Marin Independent Journal by Adrian Rodriguez

    With the help of heavy machinery, crews are removing more than 13,000 cubic yards of dumped fill and abandoned structures from a West Marin floodplain, all to restore the habitat of the endangered coho salmon.

    The $5 million project by the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network is underway along a 1-mile stretch of Lagunitas Creek. The creek runs parallel to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from Samuel P. Taylor State Park to Olema in areas that once were Tocaloma and Jewell.

    This will allow crews to create side channels that will serve as refuge habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead trout, which are about 1 1/4 inch long when hatched, said Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the nonprofit parent organization of SPAWN.

    “When the big storms come, they can’t sustain themselves in the high flows,” Steiner said of the juvenile fish. “Historically, the water would spill into the floodplains and the baby fish would move into the floodplains and stay there during these big storms. So this restores that habitat.”

    The two-year project is funded by a grant from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the California State Water Resources Control Board, as well as SPAWN member contributions and private donors. The actual construction costs about $2.3 million. The rest of the expenses went to pay for planning and development, said Preston Brown, director of conservation at SPAWN.

    Brown said that the same type of work upstream will happen next year.

    The project also involves thinning vegetation and stockpiling wood that will later be used as woody debris structures, which will be placed in the creek to increase the stream complexity. Invasive plants will be removed to make way for 9,000 native plants from SPAWN’s plant nursery that will restore the riparian corridor.

    Steiner said that they hope to recycle the excavated materials that they collect. The gravel will be re-purposed there at the creek, and other unused sediment and fill will likely be shipped to use for other types of projects, he said.

    In the summer of 2016, the National Park Service did work in the same area, removing dilapidated and abandoned structures. This project builds on a partnership with SPAWN and the Point Reyes National Seashore to restore the areas.

    “Every small step matters for a species as imperiled as coho salmon,” Cicely Muldoon, general superintendent of the National Park Service wrote in an email. “This project restores long-impaired habitat for the coho (as well as other threatened and endangered species), and feeds into efforts throughout California to save our salmon.”

    Initial studies organized by SPAWN have indicated that tens of thousands of cubic yards of fill were placed in the floodplain during the construction of the homes decades ago.

    The Lagunitas Creek segment was historically a wide valley floodplain that served as excellent habitat for coho and steelhead trout. But in the 1930s it was developed for rural residential properties.

    The fill resulted in a 50 percent reduction of floodplain habitat along the creek. Concrete retaining walls, concrete fill, patios, fences and decks built along the creek led to unnatural channels. Nonnative plants including bamboo, vinca, ivy and Himalayan blackberry cover large areas of the property, according to a state Coastal Conservancy report.

    Sixty years ago, the estimated annual Central California coho population in the Lagunitas Creek watershed was about 6,000. Now the annual population of adult coho is fewer than 400 female spawning fish, a more than 90 percent decline from historic numbers.

    Restoration of coho habitat in Lagunitas Creek is identified as a priority by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    Additionally, the project will help reduce flooding down stream, because the stormwater will have more room to disperse and sink into the water table, Steiner said.

    Said Muldoon: “Nature is resilient, and will do most of the work over time. We’re just lending a helping hand.”

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