Record numbers of chinook salmon have made the fall run to the Van Arsdale dam near Potter Valley, carrying with them guarded optimism about the future of the threatened species.
As of last week, 2,314 chinook had made their way to the dam, the most to make the fall run since at least 1945, when data on Chinook was first collected, said California Fish and Game biologist Scott Harris.
"It was a good run," he said.
Chinook salmon are on the federal threatened species list. Last year, only about 500 of them reached the dam in the fall. The dam is the farthest point the fish can swim in their trek to the top of the main stem of the Eel River.
Fall chinook salmon runs throughout the state in general appear to be up, based largely on hatchery data. "We've had fairly good returns," said Fish and Game spokesman Harry Morse.
The Sonoma County Water Agency counted 2,414 Chinook salmon at the Forestville fish ladder in the Russian River as of Nov. 28. That's the most counted during the fall run since 2005.
Counts on the Sacramento River system, which is key to determining the fishing season, are incomplete, Morse said.
Most of the counts submitted statewide so far are based on the number of fish collected at hatcheries, which stop counting when they have their quota of eggs, he said. Chinook salmon counts at non-hatchery locations are not finished, Morse said. Those counts are based on the number of fish carcasses recovered after the fish spawn.
While the initial numbers appear to bode well for the fish, what it means in the long run is unclear, authorities said.
"We'll have to wait and see," Morse said.
The surge in fish populations could be the result of myriad factors, officials said. In the case of the Eel River, Harris believes that river restoration efforts aimed at improving habitat could have played a part in the high returns of fish.
Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Fishermen's Association believes ocean conditions are the big reason for the improved fish counts. Food was plentiful for fish the past few years, making salmon better able to survive the river runs, particularly in the Central Valley river system where fish compete with farmers for adequate water, he said.
"The real question is not how many fish there are when the ocean is in good shape, but how many fish there are in the downturn," he said.