Chinook salmon, the fish on the federal threatened list that caused widespread conservation measures to be imposed in Sonoma County this past summer, are returning to the Russian River in increasing numbers.
"We have gotten 789 and they are still counting fish," said Dave Manning, a senior environmental specialist for the Sonoma County Water Agency. "It is looking pretty good so far; that is an encouraging sign."
The count is more than double the number at the same time last year, when the entire spawning run totalled only 1,100.
"It is still early, only halfway through the run," said Bill Sydeman, Farallon Institute president and senior scientist. "At this stage, we need to be cautiously optimistic."
The increasing number of fish also raises concerns that chinook will be landed accidentally or intentionally by fishermen, since this is also the beginning of the run of steelhead, which can be caught legally.
A state Department of Fish and Game warden last Monday cited a fisherman who landed a chinook in the Russian River upstream from Steelhead Beach.
Warden Demitri Esquivel said the fisherman admitted catching the fish after Esquivel found the salmon hidden under some rocks.
"I believe he was taking the fish intentionally, but he might have been fishing for steelhead as well," Esquivel said.
Chinook are on the federal Environmental Protection Agency's threatened species list and are protected in the Russian River, where they return to spawn from late September through mid-November.
"Poaching does happen, and we think the numbers of chinook are not robust enough to tolerate a lot of poaching," said Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeeper in Healdsburg.