by James Hale:
In California, the chinook or king salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is the most abundant salmon species, followed by the coho or silver salmon (Oncorynchus kisutch). The other three species, the sockeye, the chum, and the pink do not have a significant presence in Californiaʼ s waterways except for planted stocks of small, land-locked sockeye or kokanees in a few of the large lakes.
The declining health and numbers of wild chinook and coho in California has been a sad story of habitat loss and degradation, overfishing, water diversions, “straying” and other factors. But four years of commercial fishing bans and shortened seasons along with efforts to improve habitat conditions and ensure water flows leads to predictions of a banner year. Biologists suggest approximately 820,000 king salmon will return to the Sacramento – San Joaquin River system and its tributaries to spawn this season, the most in at least seven years.
The importance and ritual management of salmonid resources by Native Americans in California is well documented in the ethnographic literature. As a seasonally concentrated and annually available food resource, salmon were an important part of aboriginal subsistence economies. Fishing shamans would intensely manage the spawning runs through ritualistic “first salmon” ceremonies to allow for successful harvests and healthy, stable populations. In California, for more than 13,000 years Native American’s lives and well-being depended upon proper management of the resources. Locally at CA- CCO-235, a large Saclan indian village site at the confluence of Las Trampas and Reliez Creeks, substantial deposits of steelhead, rainbow trout, chinook and coho salmon were identified. Devices and techniques which allowed for efficient harvest of fish runs included fish weirs, basketry traps, dip, thrust, arc, and A-frame nets, toggle harpoons, and application of botanical fish poisons.
Indians were actively engaged in fishing for king salmon when Juan Batiste de Anza first sighted the Carquinez Srait in 1776. In 1850 during the gold rush and railroad building era, Italian immigrants began to fish for salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and San Pablo Bay. There were three principal methods employed in commercially fishing salmon before 1870. Drift gill netting, fyke net fishing and sweep seines were used so successfully without proper management that by 1870 the king salmon runs began to decline. Hydraulic mining activities all but destroyed the American, Feather and Yuba Riversʼ riparian corridors. The Tuolumne, Stanislaus, San Joaquin Rivers and tributaries of the Sacramento had dams placed on them, which led to further declines in the fishery. The effects of livestock grazing, agriculture, industrialization and urbanization, chronic sewage, waste discharges, pesticides and herbicides led to adverse conditions in the streams and bays.
The Central Valley Project, and other similar water development projects must be considered, in that power, flood control, irrigation and other water use and conservation projects have reduced or eliminated flows below dams, cut off spawning areas, diverted fish into irrigation canals, and changed the general regime of streams. The influence of such projects is illustrated by the Friant Dam project on the San Joaquin River, where the lack of adequate releases from it and other dams and weirs below it have eliminated a former major spring salmon fishery.
Fortunately, in most instances arrangements have been made with project sponsors for the protection of the salmon resource or compensation in the case of losses. Hatcheries have been built to replace lost spawning areas, screens installed to prevent losses at diversions, or flows maintained for the preservation of fish life. For the first time in over 60 years, water has been released into the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam and king salmon have been reintroduced in an effort to restore the fishery. Creek advocacy groups and environmental organizations have increased efforts to educate the public and restore the habitat. As a result creeks and rivers throughout the San Francisco Bay area have experienced significant returns of steelhead, chinook and coho salmon.
Salmon runs will continue through January with each storm event. For local information visit www.friendsofthecreeks.org and www.alamedacreek.org. For local salmon viewing areas visit the Bay Institute at www.bay.org and click on publications for the salmon viewing map.
James M. Hale is a wildlife biologist and Vice Chair of the Contra Costa Fish & Wildlife Committee and Vice President of Friends of the Creeks