by Betsy Herbert
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on 4/21/12
It’s not all gloom and doom for the Pacific Coast salmon, whose plight has become a crisis. More than 650 scientists, students, land managers and policymakers attended the 30th annual Salmonid Restoration Conference in Davis April 4 -7 to share their work and ideas about restoring watersheds to bring back the salmon (www.calsalmon.org).
Sixty years ago, coho salmon returned from the ocean by the thousands to spawn in the San Lorenzo River, the largest watershed within Santa Cruz County. Today, it is noteworthy if even one coho returns to the river. In 2005, central coast coho salmon were listed as “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, and steelhead have been listed as “threatened” since 1997. Throughout the state, habitat loss, water diversions, logging, fish hatcheries and dams have all contributed to the problem.
What to do about it? A series of conference keynote speakers made their impassioned pleas. “Get to Alaska, where salmon are still abundant” said Xanthippe Augerot, author of the Atlas of Pacific Salmon. She said that witnessing healthy salmon runs enables us to see beyond the “scarcity mindset.”
“Give salmon half a chance and they will come back,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, from Marin County. Huffman previously served on the board of Marin Municipal Water District during its ten-year effort with the state to protect coho salmon. As it turned out, the water district “gave up 15% of its water for the salmon,” he said, and the water district’s habitat restoration plan for salmon is “now a model for the rest of the state.”
Jim Lichatowich, author of the book Salmon without Rivers advised, “We need to dispel the 130-year old myth that we can return salmon to healthy levels by focusing on fish hatcheries instead of habitat restoration…the need for habitat restoration is real.”
Chuck Bonham, newly appointed Director of California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) and previous California Director of Trout Unlimited, said that after six months in his new job he has “learned how hard it is,” given budget cuts and controversies. On the other hand, he has come to appreciate “how cool our mission is--to manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.”
Bonham’s vision for CDFG is that it “will be the agency that presides over the recovery of the salmon rather than their demise.” One of the first things Bonham did on the job was to connect with all of his staff, who work scattered throughout the state, and he found them “totally committed to salmon.” He has since formed a team “to create a salmon return strategy that will allow any reader to understand how this will happen.”
John Laird, Secretary of California Natural Resources Agency, and Bonham’s boss, described his intent to solve the complex problems of “Managing the Delta for Fish and People.” Clearly, Secretary Laird, a former Assemblyman from Santa Cruz County, has tackled one of the state’s most thorny environmental issues.
While the speakers inspired, the conference workshops and technical sessions shared hands-on, practical methods of restoring salmon habitat, and the latest scientific research in biological, physical, and environmental stressors that affect salmon recovery.
Several sessions highlighted work in Santa Cruz County. A presentation entitled “Bowling for Coho” described an inter-agency project in Davenport. Large logs were anchored in San Vicente Creek to form pools and cover for coho salmon. Historically, the stream had been altered into a straight channel, like a bowling alley, allowing storm water to wash out critical fish habitat.