REDWOOD VALLEY, 6/12/2020 — In order for the Chinook and steelhead, whose populations are plummeting up and down the West Coast, to rebound in the Eel River, there should be at least 26,400 fish returning from the ocean to the Eel to spawn annually, according to the State of Salmon, a salmon information sharing venue run by The Nature Conservancy.
Although the Eels fish population was larger this year than last, Fish and Wildlife’s June 1 report shows that the population fell far below the margin for species recovery. Only 8,263 made the journey, they wrote.
Due to the dwindling population of fish, Fish and Wildlife has set a two fish limit per day for recreational salmon fishing. More details can be found at the Fish and Wildlife’s Ocean Salmon Sport Regulations page.
For commercial fishing, coho salmon are off limits from Horse Mt. to Fort Bragg and Chinook are limited to fish above 27 inches total length. This decision is made by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and implemented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We’re always affected when they cut the season back,” said Bob Juntz of Hooked on Mendo fish charters. “We don’t have much of a say. You just take what comes at you when it comes.”
In order to track the fish returning to their Eel River birthplace to reproduce, Fish and Wildlife count the fish as they make their way upstream
For many years, the Fish and Wildlife counted the fish on the Eel River manually, using temporary traps, long river walks, and a keen eye to track the spawning population. This is how many fish counts are still done and is the way coho are counted on the Eel.
For the past two seasons in the Eel River, Fish and Wildlife along with Trout Unlimited, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have switched over to a sonar system — Dual Frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) to tally up the salmonids. Originally created to detect enemy divers and underwater mines, DIDSON is able to detect fish movement 24 hours a day and take images that can later be reviewed.
Using this system the Fish and Wildlife found that between November 25 and December 31, 2020, 4,231 Chinook made it past the DIDSON sonar on the main stem of the Eel River, just above the confluence with the South Fork Eel. Between January 1st and March 20th, 4,032 steelhead migrated past the sonar. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fish and Wildlife stopped counting of steelhead earlier than they had planned.
This is compared to 3,844 Chinook counted last year in a similar time frame. Last year, high water truncated the steelhead counting season, ending it on February 12th, more than a month earlier than the 2020 season. Only 1,395 steelhead were counted by the sonar last year
As widely known, the populations of Chinook and steelhead, which are both federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), have been declining for decades.
According to the State of Salmon — an information sharing website about salmon from, among others, Fish and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Marine Fisheries Service created to help salmon recovery — in order to grow the population of Chinook and steelhead, get them off the endangered species list and help the species rebound, there must be 7,400 Chinook and 19,000 steelhead returning from the ocean to spawn.
The Eel River hasn’t seen numbers anywhere close to that since the 1960s. Fish counts have shown populations of returning steelhead and Chinook barely reaching 8,000 in the past decade and dipping below 1,000 fish in 2012.
Many elements have contributed to the decline of these fish species, including warmer and lower water, sediment flowing into the river, invasive species, and dams as factors that have had the most devastating impact.
Although the Chinook and steelhead population is still struggling, some see reason to remain hopeful. Scott Gracean, conservation director at Friends of the Eel River stressed that salmonids are strong in the face of adversity.
“They have a range of genetic and behavioral options which means they can survive floods, droughts, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and go into different watersheds and then come back the next year,” he said in a brief phone interview.
Others hope that data collected from fish counts will help guide future conservation efforts and boost the fish population in the Eel.