Chinook salmon are coming up the Russian River to spawn in near-record numbers, signaling what may be one of the best returns of the threatened fish in a decade.
"I am optimistic, but ever cautious," said Dave Manning, a principal environmental specialist for the Sonoma County Water Agency. "Until the season is over, it is difficult to say how this will stack up, but it will be above average."
The return to the place of their birth indicates conditions for the chinook, which as a threatened species was one step away from extinction, are generally improving in the Russian River system.
It also means there were favorable conditions in the Pacific Ocean three years ago, when the juvenile salmon left the Russian River for the ocean.
"There is something compelling about salmon, they bring a bit of the wild into our backyards every time they return," Manning said. "Their journey is amazing for any species, the rigors of their environments, their instincts to survive and return to where they have spawned."
Chinook are native to the Russian River and genetically distinct from the chinook that are found in the Sacramento, Klamath, Eel and other rivers.
Water Agency biologists follow the fish throughout their life cycle.
As juveniles, biologists catch them in nets as they are preparing to leave the Russian River at Jenner in the spring.
Since mid-September, the first chinook adults have been photographed as they move through the Water Agency's fish ladders at Forestville.
On Wednesday, biologists began their annual survey of spawning chinook, using kayaks to float along the Russian River between Crocker and Washington School roads in Cloverdale looking for activity.