The Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP) has documented what it calls “the salmon run of a lifetime” in the lower Eel River, counting over 10,000 Chinook salmon drawn upstream as rainfall boosted flows.
About 5,000 adult Chinook were counted from the segment above the Van Duzen River to Fernbridge on Oct. 27, when teams of volunteer divers scanned the Eel for the third time since late September. But it’s only part of a run that’s steadily thickened as flows have.
“It’s very safe to say that there’s 10,000 (Chinook) in the Eel right now and it’s early in the run,” said ERRP Volunteer Coordinator Patrick Higgins, who’s supervised a volunteer-driven effort to count salmon returning to the Eel.
Assisted by the Wiyot tribe and the Bear River Tribe of the Rohnerville Rancheria, the salmon monitoring project first encountered low flows, mats of algae and few fish.
They were waiting near the river’s mouth for signs of rain and at the time of the third dive, throngs of them were seen and an ERRP press release reports that “old timers along the banks of the Eel River are calling it the largest run they have ever seen”
“I never thought I’d see fish in these numbers in the Eel,” said Higgins, who witnessed “a pyramid of 300 salmon faces” during a dive at Fortuna’s Riverwalk.
He said salmon are so teeming in some areas that the water appears to boil. “There are huge congregations of spawning salmon and people should be able to see them at just about any bridge crossing where they can safely stand,” Higgins continued.
Salmon surges were observed by ERRP volunteers as rain emerged on Oct. 21 and 22, when hundreds of fish at the Riverwalk pool proceeded upstream. Hundreds more were seen swimming upstream at Shively in a span of 45 minutes, said Higgins.
“Waves of hundreds of fish” ran through the river’s Alderpoint section east of Garberville over the following two days and several hundred or more were seen entering the South Fork Eel.
Asked about the implications of the spike in salmon, Higgins referred to a 2010 historical report on Eel River salmon sponsored by California Trout. Its authors, Ronald M. Yoshiyama and Peter B. Moyle of University of California Davis, concluded that the Eel River’s history included runs of “well over a million” salmon and steelhead, “With about half that number present in less favorable years.”
Recent runs have averaged about 3,500 fish per year, which the report describes as “a 99 percent decline in numbers.”
Salmon runs in the Eel are cyclical, said Higgins, and high winter flows have lately been sustained in the spring, scouring sediment and gravel. Productive ocean conditions have also been favorable but Higgins said a reversal trend is expected to begin a few years from now.
Still, this year’s run confounds expectations that were held in 2009, when there was thought to be less than 1,000 salmon in the river and their extinction within 10 years was predicted, said Higgins.