On July 3, 1999, the 29th annual "World's Largest Salmon Barbecue" was held in Fort Bragg. California. The event, as it has been for the last 29 years, was held adjacent to the Noyo River Mooring Basin, overlooking a fleet of commercial fishing vessels which make Noyo Harbor their home port. Nearly 5000 people feasted upon chinook or "king" salmon which were caught in California's coastal waters; a number comparable to the total population of Fort Bragg, the largest coastal town in rural Mendocino County. For the last three decades the Salmon Restoration Association (SRA) has hosted this event in an effort to raise funds to help restore the local runs of salmon and steelhead. Alarmingly, just two months later, the Nation Marine Fisheries Service, listed the northern California runs of chinook salmon to be "threatened with extinction".
Local commercial fisherman once donated the salmon for this barbecue, but in recent years the fish have had to be purchased from fish dealers in southern ports. The local salmon fishery has been virtually shut down since the mid 1990's. Fishing seasons were cut back starting in the early 1980's in order to increase the supply of fish available +6 Native American fishermen in the Klamath. By the mid 1990's, Klamath Indians had been allocated 50% of all salmon originating from the Klamath River and much of that share came directly from out of what had been going into the commercial ocean salmon fishery. Since it wasn't possible to tell a Klamath River salmon from any other caught in the ocean. Fort Bragg, as did the rest of northern
THE FIRST SALMON BBQ
The first salmon BBQ was held in 1971. The initial concept of holding a BBQ to raise money for the purpose of propagating young salmon, came during a car ride home from a conservation organization meeting. This organization, Salmon Unlimited, was where representatives of commercial and sport salmon fishing interests got together to discuss problems and issues affecting salmon and salmon fisheries. Four men, Bill Grader, a fish processor and local political fund-raiser; Augie Avila, a County supervisor; Bill Maahs and Frank Haun, two local commercial fisherman; came up with the idea after having met with California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) representatives where they became frustrated attempting to get young salmon planted in local streams. The CDFG's response, as always, was they didn't have sufficient funds. During this period, hatcheries were considered a technological breakthrough which could restore the dwindling salmon stocks. It became apparent, some year prior, that the expense of building and maintaining a large hatchery was beyond the capability of local efforts, but with the availability of salmon eggs collected at other hatchery operations in the state, it seemed feasible to rear small baby salmon, called "fry", in ponds constructed along the margin of local streams, for four to eight months, or until they gained sufficient size to survive their journey to the ocean where they would feed and grow into large adult salmon. The idea of using a BBQ to raise money, during the height of the tourist season seemed to be a realistic one, and with this in mind, the seed which would spawn the Salmon Restoration Association and the annual World's Largest BBQ, was planted.
Pick-up trucks overloaded with picnic tables, collected from locations all over the community, converged on Noyo Mooring basin. Fishermen and other volunteers met to construct the cinder-block bases for the BBQ grilles. Metal folding tables were set out to take tickets, make and serve salads. hold plastic tubs of salmon marinating in a "secret" sauce. Pick-ups, filled with ice donated by the local fishhouses, pulled into position around the margin of the BBQ. Into these were placed salads and other things needing to be kept cool. The price for a dinner ticket that first year was $5 and approximately 500 people were served. Community organizations, fishermen, and concerned citizens came together to make this event work, believing that their efforts would help restore the local salmon runs. With the assistance of local merchants and many volunteers, the BBQ fund-raiser turned out to be a success.
FISH REARING PROJECTS
In 1972. the first projects to raise salmon in rearing ponds got underway. The major species of salmon in the coastal streams around Fort Bragg was the coho salmon and restoring these fish to local streams was the main objective of these early efforts. The local timber company, Georgia Pacific Corporation, proposed the use of a pond on its property as possible rearing site. A second site, Avery Pond, was near the town of Mendocino. Five thousands coho salmon about two months old were transplanted into each pond in June of 1972. These first two ponds didn't prove to be particularly successful. Problems with warm water and low dissolved oxygen caused fish to die in the Georgia-Pacific pond. Similar problems were encountered in the Avery Pond although many of the fish survived. These fish were fed by high school students from the town of Mendocino. An unexpected problem developed when the young salmon in the pond did not want to leave in the spring during the period of their normal migration to sea. Concerned, calls were made to Bob Will, the California Department of Fish & Game Hatchery manager at Mad River Hatchery. His advise - stop feeding them. In a short time after feeding was stopped, the fish left the pond. This initial effort was instructive. Small ponds with a low inflow of water were subject to low levels of dissolved oxygen and subsequent fish die-offs. Secondly, something was learned about the influence of feed on the fishes migration cues.
There were 100,000 coho salmon planted in the Big River Pond and 200,000 planted in the Ten Mile pond that year. Water temperatures in Big River reached as high as 78 F and remained 70 F or more for much of July and August but flows remained high enough to supply sufficient oxygen to keep the fish alive. In November, as flows diminished, a die began and a panicked caretaker tried to shut off the water coming into the pond thinking that the warm river water entering the pond was causing the temperature problem. This exacerbated the problem by shutting off the source of dissolved oxygen. When others arrived on scene they redirected the flow back into the pond and pulled out the screens so the fish could swim upstream and leave the pond. The exodus alleviated the problem and prevented further losses. Many of the fish either remained in the pond or returned to it later. Feeding occurred at both ponds until December 7 when rains raised rivers flows high enough to wash out the ponds and flush the fish into the natural stream system. The temperatures in the Ten Mile Pond never exceed 68 and no stress was observed anytime during the rearing operation.
In 1979, there was a major switch in emphasis away from coho salmon towards chinook salmon. One reason for this change was that coho salmon were not as popular with the ocean commercial fishermen. Fishermen were paid considerably less for coho salmon compared to chinook salmon. In addition, after seven years of coho ponding projects, the organization didn't have much to show. There were a couple years where large numbers of coho were seen returning to the Ten Mile River, but a return of the wild coho run was not happening.
Things don't always turn out the way they are intended. The young spring-run in the ponds were exceptionally large, healthy fish, averaging 4-to-the-pound. They would have contributed well to the Trinity River's spring-run had they not been so densely packed into the four CDFG fish trucks which came to transport the fish back to the Trinity River. By the time the trucks reached the Trinity River, dissolved oxygen problems developed and a significant portion of the fish died before they could be released.
The following year, small male chinook salmon, known as "jacks", were being caught by sport fishermen and were observed holding in pools throughout the Ten Mile River. These fish signaled the return of older and larger spring-run salmon which could be expected the following year and so plans were made to capture these fish for egg-taking purposes. In 1981, it was estimated that in excess of 400 spring-run salmon returned to the Ten Mile River to spawn and 70 female salmon were captured and spawned. There were 200,000 eggs taken which were transported to a CDFG hatchery for hatching are rearing. The CDFG reported that there were problems with the fertility of the eggs, and only 80,000 young chinook salmon were produced. Later that summer a disease outbreak developed and CDFG killed the entire hatch. This was done, it was said, to prevent the introduction of disease into Mendocino County streams. The development of the disease while the fish were under CDFG's care did not set well. The fish were supposedly healthy when they were introduced into the Ten Mile River which made it difficult to explain diseases appearance unless the disease already was present in the Ten Mile. Some SRA members felt that the decision to kill the entire hatch was an unjustified CDFG response.
HOLLOWTREE CREEK HATCHERY
At a Salmon Unlimited meeting that October 1979, there was considerable concern from citizens living in the Eel River watershed about the taking of eggs from Eel River for planting in other rivers. While those on the coast were excited about the opportunity for chinook salmon introductions, Eel
In the first year of operation, there were 300 chinook and 53 coho salmon captured at the trapping facility. Out of 142 chinook 101 females were spawned, resulting in around 440,000 eggs. The eggs were shipped to a Fish and Game hatchery for hatching and early rearing. Fertility was low and just under 200,000 young salmon were alive in early May of 1980. In the mean time, SRA had prepared the Ten Mile river ponds in preparation for the arrival of these fish for an additional four to five months of rearing when they would be planted back into the Eel River, after river temperatures dropped to acceptable levels. Young Eel River chinook normally exit the river by June while trying to avoid increasing river temperatures, but by holding and feeding the fish until the fall, the fish would have significantly improved chances for survival. They would have too, had the young salmon stayed in the ponds, but within days after they were released, they escaped. The size of the screens were too large for the small size of the fish. This proved to be quite an embarrassment to the SRA, but more than that, it fueled mistrust of SRA's intentions by the Eel River residents. There was blame directed at CDFG for bringing the fish three weeks too early. In a sort of ironic twist, the original objective, to introduce chinook salmon into a local streams, had been met.
The portable fish-trap weir at Hollowtree Creek operated for one more year, and then in the fall of 1984, a new facility was constructed approximately 1/2 mile upstream. This consisted of a permanent weir with a concrete foundation. In addition, a hatchery and water system was constructed so that eggs would no longer have to be shipped to distant CDFG facilities for hatching and early rearing. This hatchery has been in operation since 1984 and has undergone many improvements and expansions to become a state-of-the-art fish rearing facility. This past year, there were 154 chinook and 32 coho salmon trapped at the Hatchery. All coho were released and 14 female chinook salmon were spawned. There were 38,000 young fingerling salmon released in Hollowtree Creek. So far this year, just as the millennium is about to change, there has only been 35 chinook and 7 coho trapped. Few eggs have been taken and there's no rain in site. More rain is needed to raise flows to a sufficient level to bring additional fish up to the hatchery weir.
TEN MILE HATCHERY
While much of SRA's emphasis shifted to Hollowtree Creek in 1979. projects continued in the Ten Mile River.Besides the 100,000 chinook from Hollowtree Creek which were released into Ten Mile River pond in the spring of 1982, that same year SRA also received 20.000 Wisconsin chinook. These had been rearing in tomato tubs at Pudding Creek where they developed a gill disease. Water quality problems associated with residue build-up at the bottom of the tomato tub (bins used to haul tomatoes from farmer's fields to the cannery) tanks led to the fishes poor health and fish needed to be quickly planted into clean water to avoid a total loss. Some of the fish were also released into Puddings Creek although it is unlikely that many of these fish survived. The square cornered tomato tubs proved awkward to clean while being used as rearing tanks. A decision was made to switch to circular tanks to avoid this problem.
In order to collect eggs for a continuing program on Ten Mile River, a trapping operation was initiated in the fall of 1984. Three fishers, Nat Bingham, Marie deSantis and Richard Bush ran the trapping operation that year. A portable trap that had been used unsuccessfully in Big River the year before was moved to Ten Mile where three chinook salmon were trapped until high flows damaged the trap in early November. The run had past before repairs could be made. In April 1985, the offspring, 2,000 juvenile chinook. were released in the Ten Mile River.
In the fall of 1985. a portable trap was again tried and this time was more successful. A total of 40 salmon were trapped. Of the 40 salmon trapped, 20 chinook and one coho salmon were released upstream and the remainder were held in enclosed sections of large plastic PVC pipe, called "tubes", which were held in a quiet section of a pool until fish were ripe enough to spawn. Inside the tubes, the fish felt safe. Fresh water could flow through and the salmon remained quiet, not constantly fighting to free themselves as they did when they were placed in other types of enclosures. Apparently, trap operators were not the only ones hunting for salmon and the salmon inside were not so safe. Just when things were looking promising and enough eggs could be taken to propagate a significant number of fish from a local source of fish, a family of river otter managed to eat their way through the plastic ends of the tubes holding the salmon and made a late night dinner of 17 of the salmon being held for spawning. Only two females and one male chinook remained and these were spawned. Eggs from these fish were placed in a hatchbox and around 5000 young fry were produced and released into the Ten Mile River.
Besides runs of chinook and coho salmon, California streams are inhabited by one other closely related species, the steelhead. This is a popular game fish which is caught exclusively in streams as it migrates upstream to spawn. Local sport fishermen began noticing a sharp decline in the runs of steelhead in the mid-1980's and expressed their concerns to the CDFG. Sportsmen too, wanted to increase the runs of steelhead in order to provide for increased fishing opportunity. In the spring of 1990, the sportsmen obtained a permit to take 25,000 eggs from steelhead caught by sportsmen. One thing different about steelhead is that, unlike salmon, most steelhead don't die after spawning. In this project, steelhead could be caught by fisherman, and placed in tubes and held until ready to spawn. After spawning, the fish could be released back into the wild. This project went well and for four years running, over 20,000 year old steelhead trout were released into the Ten Mile River.
Unsure of how to best proceed, SRA contacted a local fisheries biologist to assist SRA in developing a restoration strategy. A spawning survey had recently been conducted in the Ten Mile River where few spawning salmon were found. Due to this lack of fish, a strategy was proposed to increase the existing wild run through artificial propagation. If the run of salmon were greater, there would be sufficient numbers of spawning salmon to expand their distribution within the watershed and be able to utilize habitat in portions of the watershed which they were either totally absent or in such low numbers to place their continued existence in jeopardy. SRA contacted CDFG officials regarding their desire to initiate this new project. The CDFG responded that there would have to be a watershed assessment before such project would get funding through State programs, such as the Commercial Salmon Stamp Program. In 1991, SRA hired a biologist to conduct a habitat and fishery evaluation of the Ten Mile River. In this study, out of ten locations sampled, juvenile coho were found in only two locations and in each of those, only at very low numbers. Stream habitat surveys and existing water temperature information suggested that habitat was in reasonably good condition in several areas of the watershed where no adult spawners or juveniles were found. This assessment allowed SRA to proceed with their plans.
In 1992, things, temporarily, seemed to be looking up. That year there were 24 male and 21 female coho trapped and the offspring of 11 females and 13 males were doing well until it was noted that the fish were beginning to show signs of a sickness. The CDFG came out to check on the fish and ended up confiscating and sacrificing the whole lot because of Bacterial Kidney Disease (BKD). Around that time, 8Kb had been associated with disease outbreaks in coho salmon stocks in many of California's hatcheries. In the fall of 1995, another attempt was made to trap coho. This time, hatchery operators were up on the latest hatchery methods to prevent the spread BKD. Thirty two coho were trapped from Ten Mile tributaries Bear Haven Creek and the South Fork. Three female coho and 6 males were spawned and 6000 small coho were released into the South Fork of Bear Haven Creek where they would continue to rear naturally for the next 9 to 11 months. This was the last year coho salmon were trapped and reared in the Ten Mile because of the listing of the coho salmon as a threatened species. SRA applied for a permit to continue its operation but the permit was never approved.
SALMON BARBECUE AND COMMUNITY SIGNIFICANCE
During the early years of the Salmon BBQ, local commercial salmon fishermen, their families, as well as fishhouse workers, played a large role in putting on the BBQ. as well as trapping and rearing efforts. For the commercial fishermen, their work at the BBQ usually came at some cost since it occurred at the height of the salmon season, and for those that didn't go fishing the day of the BBQ, they would find out the next day how well the fish bit and how much the days effort cost them financially. But regardless of the costs, a large percentage of the workforce in the early years was made up of fishermen and their families.
By the early 1990's, the number of people making their livelihood by commercial salmon fishery dropped off substantially. Members of the industry began to question the purpose behind continuing the BBQ as they no longer felt they would be able to benefit from the fish propagation efforts. As fisherman found it hard to justify contributing their time and energy towards the BBQ, they also questioned whether the hatchery program should continue. The BBQ and Hollowtree Hatchery had been an ongoing event for over twenty years by the mid-1990's when the commercial fishery had been shut down, and over that time period, no one involved had questioned the purpose or value of the continuing the hatchery program. For the members of the community who now organized and hosted the annual event, the event became worth continuing because of all the tourists that came to enjoy the barbecued salmon, corn-on-the-cob. beer, wine, and live music. With fishing becoming less and less important at the same time as employment in the timber industry was dropping. Fort Bragg and the Mendocino County coastal community became increasing dependent on tourist related businesses. There became no need to question the purpose of the hatchery which the BBQ supported; what the BBQ meant to the tourist based economy was reason enough.
The salmon decline is truly alarming considering that the commercial salmon fishery has been dramatically reduced, the ocean sport fishery curtailed, while there has been no commensurate increase in salmon runs in the Eel River. The continued decline in the fish runs with little remaining fishery to close as a means of bolstering this runs, adds to the level of alarm. There is currently little agreement as to the cause of the continued decline of the resource and the extent of the decline has been masked by the fishery closures. The continuation of the Hollowtree Hatchery could play a key role in maintaining the Eel River salmon run, but the poor showing at the hatchery at this millennium change does not bode well for the future of this precious salmon resource.