‘LOLETA ERIC’ DESCRIBES WHAT SALMON ARE ENDURING WHILE WAITING TO SPAWN
Although rain is expected as early as today, it is nonetheless an extremely dry year and river conditions reflect that. Currently, the Scotia gauge is running at 100 cubic feet per second. Eureka rainfall totals for October and November average 2.25 and 3.5 inches respectively. This year Eureka recorded 8/10ths of an inch of rain in October and has received a mere trace thus far in November. That’s 10% of the statistical average.
Stockwell says that in addition to the late rain pattern that has developed over the last decade, the river channel is degrading. Simply put, sediment is filling in the pools where fish come in out of the salt water to wait for the river to rise so they can proceed upstream to spawn.
Expressing his goal for the future of the Eel River’s fishery he said, “My whole thing is that this culture should…idolize salmon. We should revere these animals. They should be our cultural icon and we should [make] all our moves based on helping these fish come back.”
In our conversation, Stockwell concentrated solely on the short section of river he called “the Chinook staging area” from south Fortuna to Fernbridge. He described the history of the stream-bed hydrology,
The history is there were deep holes all along the river…Down here in the lower Eel, it’s just gravel.
And, of course, it used to have giant redwood logs everywhere and that’s what provided hard stuff for the river to deflect off to create holes, runs and riffles…good river form.
But now there is no old growth wood on this river bar. It all gets taken. So all you got is gravel.
You got no bedrock. And the holes have filled in.
He said the changes have come to the point that disease can easily break out because so many fish have to be in one area for an extended time. He described what he’s seen in the last decade,
With these low flows in October and November incidents that we have had in the last few years with the drought or just late rainfall, I track these fish and they are just waiting and waiting. Usually they are in holes, but the holes have been filling in.
Last year was the worst I’d ever seen. I was reporting that to the agencies and telling them ‘Look, we have about a hundred big Chinook and a sturgeon in about five feet of water over here.’
But then this year, when I started investigating the river in August, as the flows recede from Springtime, we can see how the low flow year is going to be….I discovered the holes were basically all filled in between Fortuna and Fernbridge.
We used to dive to count the fish, but now you only have one hole in Fortuna at 12th Street where the river runs up against the levy. That’s the hard thing that river can make a hole with.
When I asked for specifics about where the fish have been waiting since the Equinox on September 21st, Stockwell said,
They are in 3 foot runs, a 5 foot run, and 12th Street at Fortuna has over a thousand fish in it. It’s about 14 to 15 feet deep. It has a lot of volume.
So most of them are at 12th street, but there’s 500 along a run below some willows that’s 5 feet deep. There’s a hundred in a hole that’s much smaller than a swimming pool that’s five feet deep.
I was warning before the fish came in that the holes were filled in and wouldn’t have room for the fish, and now there they sit in shallow water.
2015 showed that a fish kill like the one that occurred on the Klamath is possible on the Eel River if conditions get bad enough.
Remember the river was really low, lower than this, and I discovered about 10% of the fish I was looking at were listless and not moving.
I put my paddle in front of their face. I was paddling over them in [three to five feet of water.] I put my paddle in front of their face and they don’t move. I see their eyes are milky.
Ten percent of the fish were blind.
That was related to sitting in algae ridden water that was not flowing enough….It turned out to be a fluke which is an organism that burrowed into their eyes and made them blind. Then they had a secondary brain virus that put them in a zombie phase.
So we had zombie fish.
This year, somehow, even with the extremely late rain, the fish are just now beginning to show signs of illness
“I’ve got one I am tracking here near Fernbridge that is blind. And Sal [Steinberg] saw one up at Fortuna.”
Although rains are expected Wednesday, Stockwell emphasized that the problem doesn’t end when the river flow comes up because these pools the fish use to wait in are continuing to fill in over time.
A lot of people, including some agency people, have the attitude like, ‘oh, it’ll be better when it rains….’ Well, I talk about this a lot… you need to think of river form.
We need holes. We need that wood. Not just to make the holes, but every piece of wood I see in this gravel has little animals around it. Everywhere else is just algae.
But the point is that the accumulation over time of gravel and silt, some from the ’64 flood, is parked here.
The river loses velocity and it loses power to move this stuff, when it doesn’t have those logs I was talking about, to create complexity in it.
So, Ive been advocating with the agencies. We need some change on the lower river.
Specifically, he said,
Let the gravel miners take a lot, lot more. And let them get in the channel to dig their gravel.
There’s so much gravel in the channel that shouldn’t be here from the big flood events.
And now it has led to these problems where we don’t have a good river channel and it keeps spreading out and eating away ranch land.
Loleta Eric talked about how the Chinook have been able to hold on.
The fish usually have these holes to sit in. And usually by mid-November there’s enough rain that they can move up and at least spawn in the main stem in the deep holes at Holmes, Shively or High Rock. These places that are known good spawning areas.
Main stem redds have more challenges for survival than those in tributaries, but success is possible he says.
People talk about main stem spawners and how the redds probably aren’t viable. And the redds are the salmon nests.
The reason they say that is because flows are going to come up so high in the main stem once it really does rain hard that people think they get washed out or silted in.
The redds need 30 days to hatch generally, depends on temperature. And then in another 30 days the little fry will emerge from the gravel.
Stockwell says that water from the Potter Valley Project can help in years like the one we are having.
There’s a big reservoir on this river. Right now it’s in the middle of [them] deciding who’s going to get it…Whether its going to keep diverting as much water to the southern counties, and there’s not a pressure from the culture here [to say] ‘No!’
I mean there are some of us who really care about this, but most people up here…it’s not on their radar.
But as a culture, we need to bring that pressure.
I think that if I went to the Bay Area and presented to groups, ‘hey look here’s the state of the Eel River. Here’s the state of the salmon. Here’s the lack of a priority to help this salmon run,’ I think that people would say, ‘oh, my gosh!’
Because how many people say, ‘oh, you live in Humboldt. It’s so beautiful. Its so green.’
And that is true, but those of us who live here know that there are components of the landscape that are missing, like 95% of the salmon run.
While Stockwell does have optimism, the situation is quite complex. There are many stressors. Stockwell said,
This is the front end of the run. More fish will come in from the ocean later, although we are hearing some bad things out of Oregon. The Chinook fishery is shut down on a lot of streams from what I hear, because the numbers aren’t showing and they have had some rain.
So there are things to worry about.
There’s a dead zone of the Columbia river. There’s the warm water blob that probably affecting things more than we realize.
Yet, here I am hopeful for the Eel River because for the last two years, we had the wet year of 16/17. That’s when I was helping Shane Anderson and Jason Hartwick with the River’s Last Chance and taking them around showing them the fish.
And then last year we had the unique pattern where we had the big break in December and in January there was a break. So the Chinook, the late Chinook and the Coho got a chance for their redds to ripen and I feel like it was good for production.
He works with Friends of the Van Duzen and with the Eel River Recovery Project to help study and work with regulatory agencies, but Stockwell says it’s a slow process to get the changes that are needed.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has jurisdiction, did not return a call for comment before deadline.