The Eel River Recovery Project has released its 2016-17 fall season Chinook Salmon Assessment report which estimates a “robust” run of 15,000 to 30,000 fish, double the previous year’s run according to information made available by Managing Director Patrick Higgins.
According to a report summary prepared by the organization, which has a local office at the Willits Hub at 630 S. Main St., ERRP began Chinook monitoring in 2012 and salmon runs have varied between 10,000 and 50,000 fish annually, which is comparable to population levels measured by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the mid 1950s. The agency’s current survey is an indication of another strong run this year, but it’s only the midpoint.
Eel River fall Chinook salmon historically began mass migrations from the estuary into the lower river in late summer, but now they enter months later as a result of what the ERRP calls degraded habitats.
“There are almost no deep pools, water temperatures are too warm, and riffles are so shallow that the fish risk stranding as they migrate,” the report summary states, adding that in 2016, ERRP estimated that only approximately 2,000 to 3,000 early Chinook had been able to move up out of tide water and stage in freshwater for their migration before heavy rains began in mid-October.
After heavy rain periods in early November 2016, ERRP received numerous reports from anglers who were catching and releasing lots of Chinook salmon as they migrated upstream. According to the documentation, shortly thereafter, high densities of spawning salmon showed up in tributaries all over the Eel River watershed, and it became evident the second pulse of the salmon run was much larger than the first, with approximately 10,000 to 15,000 fish.
ERRP stated that South Fork Eel River tributaries, such as Rattlesnake Creek and Ten Mile Creek near Laytonville, had salmon on every riffle for miles. The Van Duzen River had thousands of spawners from Yager Creek in its lower reaches to Little Butte Creek above Bridgeville. Out in Round Valley, waves of fresh Chinook salmon spawned all over in the Middle Fork Eel and Black Butte rivers, where flocks of bald eagles fed for weeks.
As rains continued in December, yet another wave of Chinook ascended to the spawning beds. According to the environmental organization, late run fish often enter smaller tributaries after the water table recharges so enough flow is maintained for egg survival.
Widespread spawning was noted in tributaries of Bull Creek in Humboldt Redwoods State Park on the lower South Fork in December. Similarly, spawning in Van Duzen River tributaries like Grizzly Creek was very active and there was a high density of fish in some reaches. Middle Fork Eel tributaries Williams and Murphy Creeks also had robust late runs.Outlet Creek and its major tributary Long Valley Creek had active spawning for at least six weeks, with relatively high densities of spawning Chinook even in tributaries upstream of Willits into December. However, the upper Eel River Chinook run was not considered robust, with just 453 fish passing Van Arsdale Fish Station at the base of the Potter Valley Project, which is 140 miles upstream of the ocean.
According to the analysis, real problems are apparent with regard to Chinook salmon production in Tomki Creek, which joins the main Eel River just downstream of VAFS. Only 61 live fish and carcasses were counted in 2016-2017, while this stream had a run of 3,500 to 5,000 Chinook salmon annually as recently as the mid 1980s. Fish monitoring statistics indicate runs have also declined similarly in South Fork Eel River tributaries Salmon Creek near Miranda and Redwood Creek near Redway.
The reduction in spawning carrying capacity in tributaries exhibiting cumulative watershed effects problems is being offset by the recovery of hundreds of miles of main Eel River channels.
Streams with extensive public land ownership in their headwaters have less sediment that blocks fish habitat, fine soil particles from past floods have been washed to the ocean, and Chinook spawning gravels are excellent. Examples are the upper Eel, Middle Fork and Van Duzen River watersheds that have extensive U.S. Forest Service lands in their headwaters.
Similarly, the upper South Fork Eel River has extensive Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Areas and its channel is in late recovery from past floods and serves as excellent spawning habitat downstream as far as Piercy.
ERRP reports Eel River Chinook salmon have co-evolved with huge natural forces such as earthquakes, floods and landslides that constantly changed habitat quality over thousands of years.
While we think of salmon as homing with precision to the stream of their birth, they actually take cues from the environment and can change spawning locations as necessary. When salmon swim up to Salmon Creek during high flows and sense extremely high suspended sediment, they rely on genetic memory of similar events when natural forces disrupted habitat for decades or centuries.
Just as they did then, they will follow their senses to functioning habitat and spawn in a different location, but with each generation checking as they pass by to see if Salmon Creek is switched on again.
At present the total Eel River fall Chinook population is in the tens of thousands and; therefore, not at all at risk of extinction. ERRP chronicled a decline of Eel River fall Chinook from 20,000-50,000 in 2012 to 10,000-15,000 in 2015.
The rebound of the 2016-2017 run was a result of good survival rate of young fish in previous years, good ocean conditions and low ocean fishing pressure. The 2017-2018 Chinook run is expected to be as large or larger than 2016-2017 because of the same factors.
ERRP stated this year’s run started slow again, but the number of Chinook surged with the rains and they were spawning all over the watershed by Thanksgiving. ERRP states it is too early to tell what escapement (the number of fish left after the fishing season) will be, however, because as much as half the run may start their run in December and early January.
To review a copy of the 2016-2017 fall Chinook assessment report, visit www.EelRiverRecovery.org or follow ERRP on Facebook to see photos of recent surveys and fish.
ome recommendations for promoting restoration of the most critical habitats outlined in the report include:
Promoting planning for habitat restoration of the lower Eel River on a reach scale so that the power and flow of the river is more focused and able to scour deeper pools and create riffles that are passable for adult Chinook salmon, restoring lower Van Duzen River below Yager Creek using bioengineering to bring back perennial surface flows, and encourage collaboration with CDFW to strategically use dual frequency sonar technology to better quantify Eel River fall Chinook.