The fall has not only brought encouraging economic news to Sonoma County, it's providing some welcome environmental news as well. At the forefront is the most positive fish spawning report Sonoma County has heard in years.
As of Wednesday, the Sonoma County Water Agency had taken pictures of a record 6,348 chinook salmon working their way through the fish ladders at the agency's inflatable dam near Forestville. That's more than twice the count for all of last year's Russian River spawning run, and it breaks the previous record set in 2003 when 6,103 chinook were counted with the help of underwater cameras.
This also marks the fourth year in a row that the count has increased. In 2009, 1,801 salmon were counted, up from a historic low of 1,125 in 2008.
In addition, the Water Agency has tallied 44 endangered coho salmon on the Russian River near Austin Creek. It's still early in that run as well, but the numbers are encouraging. These represent salmon that were raised, tagged and released by biologists working at the fish hatchery at the base of Warm Springs Dam. By comparison, 10 years ago, there were fewer than a dozen adult coho counted in the Russian River.
Meanwhile, reports from Central and Northern California and southern Oregon are equally encouraging. Officials are predicting that the Sacramento River will see four times more salmon this year than in 2011. Meanwhile, an estimated 1.6 million chinook salmon were expected to make their way into and up the Klamath River this fall. If so, that would be a 600 percent increase over 2011.
So what's made the difference? Just as the source of the salmon's collapse has been the subject of much debate, so is the cause of its recovery. Most likely it's not the product of any one thing.
Biologists point to improved ocean conditions as a major contributor. Given strong fish reports up and down the West Coast, salmon clearly are finding it much easier to survive the three to four years they spend living in the ocean thanks to the abundance of krill and small crustaceans in recent years. A three-year ban on ocean salmon fishing is another factor.
But these record counts also certainly reflect the time and effort that have been invested in recent years in improving salmon habitat in many areas, including along the Russian River.
To date, millions of dollars have been spent to make it easier for the endangered fish to do what comes naturally in returning to the rivers where they were born. Those efforts will be continuing. As Staff Writer Bob Norberg reported on Friday, the Water Agency, local landowners and others are spending between $36 million and $48 million in improving habitat on Dry Creek and along other Russian River tributaries in hopes of helping the endangered fish to continue its recovery.
Whatever the reasons, political leaders and biologists, as they cheer these high salmon counts, should refrain from declaring victory. Continued diligence in all of these areas is required.
Some environmentalists fear that the collapse of salmon populations in 2008 and 2009 is cyclical, and they contend that we could be going from boom to bust again soon.
Right or wrong, the one thing that's predictable about salmon is that it's unpredictable. And it's a fact that protecting the species is not going to get any easier or less expensive any time soon.