Fall Chinook Salmon Run in Eel River Estimated to Have Dipped Below 10,000 Fish for the First Time Since ERRP Began Assessments in 2012

Chinook salmon school holding in shallow water in the lower Eel River. Photo by Dave Sopjes.

Chinook salmon school holding in shallow water in the lower Eel River. [Crop of a photo by Dave Sopjes]

Press release from the Eel River Recovery Project:

Times are changing in the world of salmon assessment on the Eel River as technology provides more accurate counts than people can, with sonar in the river and drones in the sky. But the data do not provide good news, with the 2019–2020 fall Chinook salmon total run size dipping below 10,000 fish for the first time since the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP) began assessments in 2012.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has operated a Dual Frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) device on the main Eel above Dyerville for the last two years. They estimated that 4,110 Chinook salmon migrated past that point between November and early January 2020, versus 3,844 the year prior. Cal Trout operated a similar unit on the lower South Fork Eel River and found only about 2,000 Chinook in 2019–2020, versus 3,800 last year.

Since 2015, Eric Stockwell has conducted stand-up paddleboard surveys of the lower Eel from late August until rain boosts flow in October or November and the fish begin their migration to the headwaters to spawn. David Sopjes mastered drone photography of the lower Eel River over the last two years, and got precise salmon counts from his photos in 2019 using DotDotGoose software that was developed for estimating water fowl numbers from photos. 

Eric and Dave estimated that 1,500 Chinook salmon were holding in the lower Eel River on October 29, 2019. By way of comparison, on October 27 in 2012, an ERRP dive team counted 5,036 salmon in this part of the river.

CDFW and Cal Trout found that the main pulse of Chinook salmon occurred in association with the rain just after Thanksgiving, but there was no late pulse of new fish as additional rains came. Some fish spawned below Dyerville in the main Eel River starting in late November, but at very low densities and they likely numbered just a few hundred. Later-season surveys of lower Eel tributaries like Howe Creek and Bear Creek found no spawners and no salmon nests or redds.

Salmon Swimming upstream.

Fall Chinook salmon migrating up the South Fork at Piercy. [Photo by Ann Constantino November 29, 2019]

In the South Fork Eel River basin, the run was delayed by low flows, and most Chinook fish spawned in the main South Fork upstream of Leggett. Flows were too late to expand distribution into upper Tenmile Creek, which has some of the most productive spawning areas in the Eel River watershed

It was not until December 1, 2019 that the first Chinook salmon ascended the ladder at the Van Arsdale Fish Station, and only 154 total Chinook salmon migrated over Cape Horn Dam in the 2019–2020 season. Only one adult Chinook was seen by ERRP volunteers in Outlet Creek, and surveys of large upper Eel tributary Tomki Creek indicated that not more than 120 Chinook spawned there in the entire 2019-2020 season.

Although Chinook salmon have been abundant in Van Duzen River in several years since 2012, the 2019–2020 run was weak by all accounts and the total run appears to have been as low as 500–1,000 fish. Good news came from the Middle Fork, where the river rose to greater than 1,000 cfs and late-run Chinook salmon were able to get over Coal Mine Falls. This allowed access to prime spawning beds upstream as far as the Eel River Guard Station, and in tributaries Williams Creek and the Black Butte River.

A new major factor limiting Eel River Chinook salmon survival is ocean productivity in the area off northern California. Krill, an important source of food for salmon, are fewer in number and smaller in size since 2015, and this has been limiting ocean growth and survival of Eel River Chinook.

So, what can we do to improve freshwater habitat to help Chinook survival? As a priority, we need to fix lower Eel River habitat that constitutes a major threat to Chinook salmon survival. Banks must be stabilized and cottonwood gallery forests restored to narrow the floodplain and scour deeper pools for holding and riffles for migration. ERRP will be working on a Lower Eel River Salmon Parkway project that involves recreational development and salmon habitat improvement.

We need to control watershed erosion through road improvement and decommissioning, to heal riparian zones and to restore watershed hydrology to limit damaging flood peaks and improve base-flows. ERRP will be pursuing forest health grant funds to thin forests in order to help restore stream flow. For more information, see www.eelriverrecovery.org or call ERRP Managing Director Pat Higgins at 707 223-7200.


Eroding bank at Worswick Pool above Fernbridge is causing pool filling that leads to poor habitat and salmon stress.

Eroding bank at Worswick Pool above Fernbridge is causing pool filling that leads to poor habitat and salmon stress.



  • When they are gone, they are gone forever…

  • O that’s really strange! you mean after all the black market grows we’re abated there’s still a water and fish problem? Who would have thought?

  • They will be extinct in my lifetime from our rivers. They used to exist on the east coast down to Chesapeake bay and south of San Francisco on the west coast. Where white people show up and industrialize, the salmon leave. The trend is going down like a lightning bolt, and it’s one of the saddest things about this part of the country

  • Remember when the tangerine guy said that that were just diverting the water into the ocean and sees no reason to let it go to waste. The fish might not make it through this presidency
    Lordy he’s an idiot

    • Hey, all the wells your politicians allow aren’t much better. The president may be dumb but has done next to nothing to affect the eel river fish. That problem is in your own backyard.

      • 🕯🌳With this I’d have to agree. 👍🏽🖖🐸🕯

      • he just promised the water in the trinity river to central valley farmers

      • You betcha it is. The Trinity River is and always has been.
        I was so happy to see the Tribe win the last court battle

      • The problem is that Sacramento and D.C. don’t care about salmon nor its recreational or commercial fisheries. Until this changes, there won’t be more than pocket change thrown towards restoration efforts that either isn’t required by a lawsuit or involves dilapidated infrastructure that’s lost its commercial value. We’ll have to lose some important runs before the money really starts to flow.

  • Squawfish and pot growers. The only thing that’s changed the game. Before this there were way more fish, even with bad logging practices.

  • The number of state commercial and sport fishermen far out number any amount of Tribal fishermen in a set state. The state has a massive commercial fishing fleet, of five main commercial fishing stagies for any fishing category: The purse seine fleet alone scoops up tons of millions of Salmon just as a quota; then the trawling group comes in for another scoop on the fish for another quote; then the most effective encroachment on the dying species is gil net drift fishing, but yet Tribal inherent rights and culture to be fishing, is making the salmon disappear. Logging right down to the rivers and streams, warming up the water temperatures, instead of selective harvesting of the trees 5 miles away from any fish bearing waterways with all/any fish species. Destroying habitats all over the country, but yet Tribal inherent rights and culture to be fishing, is making the salmon disappear. Agriculture sucking massive amounts of freshwater to feed crops or livestock, causing low and warm waterways to the Salmon. Dams chewing up hundreds of thousands of juvenile Salmon every season. Huge corporations dumping poisons into the waterways choking off salmon @ all stages of their life. Converts are in severe damage or clogged so Salmon would not be able to pass through anyways. Pur greed and disrespect since colonization started, but yet Tribal inherent rights and culture to be fishing, is making the salmon disappear.

  • Yes at some point in time people need to realize that the population of sea lions need to be managed at the mouth of the rivers. The real problem with all california prey is the mentality of the people to save all the predators .

    • Yeah the sea lion and seal population should definitely be managed rigorously. We are managing sea lions under a couple dams in the northwest now. Salmon fishing should be extremely limited or banned. And so much more should be done… the fish had historically gone all the way down into Baja Mexico in the past.

    • You are dead on about the sea lion population! In 1971 the hundreds of sea lions at the Eel River’s mouth (and following upriver to WEOTT? decimated the salmon. I pointed that fact out in a letter to the Times Standard and immediately got attacked by the liberals PUKIES in Arcata and Westhaven. Their answer was-No its not at all realistic numbers what you’re saying-blah blah blah. My fellow duck hunters validated my statements!!!!!
      So jump 50 years into the liberals perception-THERE’S CAUSE OF ALARM OTHER THAN MAN MADE THEFT OF WATER AND CLIMATE CHANGE.

      First order- take sea lions off the Federal (boo hoo) protectionist list and hire Alaskan eskimos to remove 90% of the local sea lion population. They would process/can/flash freeze/ the meat and ship commercially to any Countries wanting this select meat.
      With the key predators controlled, 3 years later the population will increase and you’ll be out of harms way. You still have to control the sea lions!!!!
      Reality tells me you PUKES will scream and yell and waggle around in your salmon
      costumes and demand protection-blah blah blah!!!
      You’re the idiots who have caused this problem-its on YOUR liberal backs for the continual loss of fish populations.
      One last good tidbit of information-OPEN OCEAN-PELAGIC FOREIGN NATION FISHING FLEETS randomly seine net our USA West Coast schools of fish. These nations don’t care where the fish came from, into the holds they go and they’re processed. This may be a scenario that
      has occurred here currently. Its a big What IF?? but should be considered.

  • Cmon 2020 elections cmon justice

    The fish are going down due to few different reasons not because of the extortion lies our theiving regional and state corrupt crooks keep pumping out on the airwaves. Logging practices for decades filled in the river bed with silt,seen the photos myself of the 2 and 3 mast ships coming up the river to Redway. Ocean acidification caused by global warming isn’t helping any population of anything that lives in the sea part time or permenatly.the salmon were screwed long before people started small farms on there land, it’s just an excuse to run a mass extortion fraud racket against the people, but hey you all keep voting for the same clowns or dont vote at all.

    • Who needs stinkin’ facts? Certainly not peabrain snowflake Conservatives who only believe FAKE news because they are so f-cking brain dead!!

  • In my 1911 I trust

    This fall, at the end of October, I was flying back to Humboldt from Southern California. At this point in time, we had had little to no rain and our rivers were all still very low. As I was flying I looked down upon all the grids of farmland in the Central Valley, to my surprise, I could not see the very obvious grids of farmland, all I saw were vast lakes and flooded ground. It surprised me because I knew we hadn’t had any rain, so how could there be floods? Apparently, if farmers in the Central Valley don’t use their water quota for the year, they won’t get as much the following year, so to account for that, they open the valves on their reservoirs and flood the farmland in order to receive their full quota once again next year. To me, I felt like I was witnessing one of the greatest environmental disasters I had ever personally seen. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and the kicker is, that in this time of dams, low flows, declining fish numbers, and droughts, is that this is all perfectly legal and not much is said about it. Is this where all the salmon’s water goes during the time its needed most? To flood farmland in the Central Valley? I think this issue contributes more to the problem than anything else and nothing is being done, much less said, to reign it in.

    • Yes. Everybody sees the obvious little problems, but most people miss the elephants in the room.

      All the little BS save the planet laws, like banning plastic straws. Meanwhile we have an international air travel system that thinks it’s okay to burn huge quantities of fuel flying all over the globe with empty planes, because the airlines don’t want to lose their space. We need to start thinking bigger.

  • Obviously, there are multiple reasons why these fish are nearing extinction so it seems stupid to fight over which factor is the killer. \
    Saving our salmon, if we can, depends on working to abate, or at least minimize, all of these impacts.
    Each of us can choose one or two or three things to work on, depending on our inclination and ability, but just blaming the other guy isn’t going to get anything done.

  • OK since no one else has pointed this out I will.
    Is it possible the food chain for the salmon is declining? What if the plankton wasn’t there for the little fishes? Can you say Fukushima? I couldn’t find any new articles but here’s an old one.
    There has been a shortage of sardines (which the salmon feed on )
    Just food for thought.

  • I have fished from San Francisco to Redding on the Sacramento River, and on the Delta.
    First I think the seals and sea lions numbers need to be reduced !! They are taking over the rivers and Delta. Why not harvest them. I’m sure there’s plenty of poor starving people that would love to eat them .
    There are so many on the piers in the bay , you almost can’t get to your boat.
    Second- All the dumb ass people growing there grapes for wine need a swift kick in the ass. Along with all the other almond and prune and orchard growers that came down into the Central Valley. That was all non irrigated cattle Land when I was a young man. Pasture land that didn’t get irrigated . So now they need all this water to irrigate there crops . Also the alfalfa growers piss me off , there sending most of what the grow to China for thier beef industry. And our cattle ranches are slipping into history.
    Third- these DORKS !!!! That think you can pull even MORE water from the Delta should be shot twice !! The delta would be salt water !! The flow from all the rivers that feed the Delta are mismanaged as it is . Ask people that don’t fish regularly if they ever seen a river reverse direction in flow when the tide changes. And they want to take more water from the Delta.
    Tired for all these politicians
    That don’t know their ass form their elbow saying what we all need to do . What the hell ever happened to common sense ???

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