Imperiled Salmon Inspire Citizens to Restore Mattole River Watershed

The Mattole River, a remote salmon spawning stream in a coastal valley ringed by lush forests with abundant redwoods, is the object of a citizen-inspired effort to help nature overcome years of damage that has imperiled the fish.

The program began as an effort to restore dwindling salmon populations and broadened to include the entire watershed.

The river originates deep in the forest of Mendocino County and flows 62 miles through Humboldt County to the coast, emptying in the Pacific Ocean just south - and within sight - of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point of California.

Along the North Coast, devastating economic losses from a 50-90 percent de cline in commercial salmon fishing prompted Governor Pete Wilson to declare a state of emergency in Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties May 20 so that families and small businesses could seek federal assistance. Similar declarations occurred in Oregon and Washington, and the Clinton administration announced $15.7 million in salmon disaster aid May 26.

In the Mattole valley, fog drifts ashore in the evening and burns away in midday sun, deer are plentiful, and humans are sparse. Fewer than 3,000 people inhabit the 300 square -mile watershed, clustered in tiny communities like Petrolia, Honeydew, and Whitethorn, or secluded on ranches and in forests. To the west rises the King Range mountains; to the east, the Eel River and the historic redwood groves of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

For all of its beauty, however, the watershed is troubled. Severe and wide spread erosion into the Mattole River and its tributaries have stripped away much of the vegetation that stabilizes stream banks and offers salmon shade and cover.

In the late 1970s, decreasing numbers of salmon became cause for alarm and stirred a local rescue effort.

"A handful of people saw that the king salmon run was on the verge of extinction. Unless something was done, a whole subspecies was going to disappear," said Freeman House, a writer who helped found the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group to stop the decline of the fish.

Erosion, primarily the result of road building that disturbed natural drainage patterns, was aggravated by the frequent rainfall that characterizes the watershed as the state's rainiest climate (some areas receive 200 inches in a wet year). Sediment choked and muddied the streams where salmon begin life, launch their arduous journey to the ocean, and return to spawn and die.

House and his neighbors recognized that improving stream conditions for the well-being of the salmon would involve restoring and promoting the natural diversity of the entire watershed - an awesome task given its size.

In 1986, they organized the Mattole Restoration Council, which set upon an ambitious course to improve habitat and fish passage, re duce sedimentation, and replace lost vegetation wherever they could.

"We realized that salmon don't live just in rivers; salmon live in watersheds," said Jan Morrison, chair of the Council's board of directors. "We had to figure out what to do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again - how to have healthy salmon, healthy forests, and a healthy economy.

"We haven't figured out all of the answers yet, but we have identified some of the questions," she said.

Hundreds of local residents, including school children, have participated in the projects, doing much of the work as volunteers.

"The Mattole project has proven that local people who are determined to take responsibility for the place where they live can make a difference," said David Simpson, a founder of the Council and the salmon group, and author of "Queen Salmon," a play about the salmon's plight, which has been performed in California, Oregon, and Washington.

The Salmon Group operates homemade hatching and rearing facilities in the forest and along stream banks to increase the numbers of native fish. The Mattole Restoration Council works to enhance streams, research problems, and find solutions occasionally with technical assistance from government agencies or universities. The two groups have launched 34 restoration projects in the past 14 years. Two-thirds of the work is funded by contracts with state agencies, such as the Department of Fish and Game and the state Coastal Conservancy. The rest of the funding is provided by foundation grants, dues, and private donations.

A Salmon's Life

On their mysterious life's journey, juvenile salmon swim downstream to the ocean in the spring, often traveling in the dark of night and during storms to evade predators. In the estuary, their bodies prepare to switch from fresh to salt water, a process called smolting. The salmon live in the ocean for two or three years, then by instinct return to the stream of their birth. Back home - if they make it - the females build a nest, or "dig the redd" with their tails, and lay eggs, which the males fertilize. Then both the male and female die.

Though no specific numbers are available, the Department of Fish and Game says the salmon count remains precariously low in the Mattole watershed, where salmon fishing is prohibited. Declining salmon populations off the North Coast of California has resulted in a ban on ocean commercial and sport fishing of coho salmon, and permitting of only limited sport and commercial fishing of chinook salmon, whose winter-run is listed as endangered.

Chinook, or king salmon, spawn in winter, and migrate to the ocean in spring. Coho, or silver salmon, spend their first year in fresh water. All salmon depend upon sufficient cool water in rivers and streams and the safety of deep, shaded pools, to sustain them during the hot, dry months and offer protection from predators. But erosion has robbed the streams of depth and shade and slowed the brisk water flow that scours channels of excess sediment and debris.

"The state of the salmon is precarious," said Mattole valley biologist Gary Peterson, who directs the Salmon Group's operation of six hatching and rearing facilities.

Raising Salmon

Eggs are taken from native female salmon, fertilized with milt from native males, and buried in gravel-filled coffin-sized hatch boxes at six sites in the water shed.

Imitating conditions of a healthy stream, water is filtered through drums of fine gravel to remove sediment before being piped into the hatch boxes. When the eggs hatch, the young are placed in large above-ground tanks to be reared. They are fed with a "slam dunk" automatic feeder, a Peterson invention triggered by a spring timer that empties canisters of feed into the water at regular intervals over 12 hours. The facilities use no electricity.

Up to 50,000 salmon are hatched and reared each year, but after the rigors of drought, migration, predators, and ocean conditions take a toll, it is believed only about 1 percent return to the Mattole as adults, Peterson says.

In dry weather, the Salmon Group scoops up young king salmon called fingerlings born in the streams and moves them to the safety of rearing tanks until autumn rains swell the streams and reopen ocean access.

Restoring the Streams

The Mattole Restoration Council began its work with a two-year inventory of resources in the watershed, which is nearly 90 percent privately owned. Under a contract with the state Department of Fish and Game, the project surveyed the sources of erosion and published the findings in a 1989 report, "Elements of Recovery."

"We needed to find out what was out there in a systematic way," Morrison said, noting that the last inventory of the spawning and rearing habitat occurred before the major flood of December 1964 - nearly 30 years ago. "The survey of erosion sources led us to the conclusion that roads were the leading cause of watershed degradation," she said.

The council wants to decommission some non-essential roads with poor drainage. The first project, to be carried out by the Bureau of Land Management, would do away with the last 3.5 miles of a road in the Honeydew Creek watershed of the King Range National Conservation Area that contributes to sediment deposits in the Mattole River.

Fixing Mattole Canyon Creek

One of the most degraded streams in the watershed was Mattole Canyon Creek. Gravel deposits had nearly ruined it as salmon habitat, widening and filling the channel and eliminating small pools.

In the fall of 1993, Mattole Restoration Council coordinator Randall Stemler led a project to excavate the creek and deepen its channel, reconfigure its natural bends, and install tree trunks and willow trees along the banks to stabilize the soil and encourage vegetation growth and formation of shaded pools. The project enhanced about 1.5 miles of the creek, and passed its first "test" last winter when woody debris planted on the stream banks held firm during two big storms. "It was a resurrection from a biological desert to a productive stream with increased biodiversity," said Carl Harral, a Department of Fish and Game fisheries habit supervisor. "Without our restoration effort, the spotlight wouldn't be on the salmon. They wouldn't be around anymore."

Measuring the impact of the restoration projects upon the water quality and salmon is sketchy at best because the accumulated impacts of human activities and weather will take years to repair and heal. "It has taken 30 or 40 years to put the watershed in this condition, and it's going to take more than a few years to fix it, if we can," said Jim Hopelain, a Department of Fish and Game biologist, who has begun a statewide restoration project evaluation program.