Other Voices: Local salmon – food for the soul
Wild Chinook salmon are in the Yuba River. Several hundred have been there all summer long, and just last week, they began to spawn.
Most of us get excited at this time of year, the beginning of harvest season. My neighbors want us to share in their overabundance of tomatoes. The peaches are exquisite and the squashes are getting plump. Nothing in our natural world compares, however, to the amazing bounty of salmon.
I love to eat salmon. I get it packed from Alaska, and don’t buy anything that doesn’t say “wild.” The farmed stuff is a disgrace, nutritionally and otherwise. I like to think about people eating wild salmon, especially our ancestors and children. It is food for the soul, and we can be nourished even without eating the flesh.
Our local salmon are not abundant enough to support a fishery. Indeed, the fisheries commissioners the last two years have declared the whole of California and most of Oregon closed to commercial fishing. Of course, the decline can be charted over the last several decades, and the causes are well known: Dams, diversions, habitat destruction, pollution and short-sighted hatchery practices.
Feast your eyes and your imagination, still, on our Yuba River Salmon. Below Englebright Dam, the Yuba River hosts that last best remaining population of wild salmon in the Central Valley of California. The average annual run size over the last 30 years is more than 15,000 fish. Even during the record-low runs of the last two years, everyone on SYRCL’s salmon tours got to see these amazing fish do their thing.
Unfortunately, you are not going to see those special “spring kings,” the Chinook salmon that held in the river all summer long waiting to be the first to spawn. With just a few hundred returning each year, they are now too rare, yet historically, they were as abundant as any other type of salmon.
“Springers” enter the river in April, May or June, guided by instinct to ascend the river during snowmelt runoff. High flows of spring allowed the ancestors of these fish to ascend the North Yuba to Love Falls above Sierra City, and in the Middle and the South Yuba they migrated up to natural waterfalls of varying location.
Spring-run Chinook salmon of the Yuba River were thought to be extinct following the construction of Englebright Dam in 1941. Remarkably, without environmental laws to guide the provision of adequate flows and water temperature below the dam, they somehow persisted. Currently, the Yuba County Water Agency carefully provides sufficient cool water for salmon, while funding studies to determine their genetic status, health, movements, productivity, and habitat preferences.
Still, there is a real risk of extinction for spring-run Chinook if we do not restore access to habitats currently blocked by dams such as Englebright. More than 90 percent of the former spawning habitat of these fish is above such dams. Of eighteen former populations in the Central Valley, at least 14 no longer exist as independent and viable.
The first salmon cannery in the west targeted spring-run of the lower Sacramento River, and the short-term business peaked with a harvest of one million fish. It has been estimated that one in 10 were Yuba River salmon. Because spring-run must reside in their holding pools for up to six months without feeding, they come prepared with exceptionally high fat content. You know those Omega-3 fatty acids that they sell in a bottle for $10 a gram? That’s $4,000 per pound, and food for thought when considering the expense of wild salmon fillets.
Feast your eyes on Yuba River salmon this fall. SYRCL, with our outfitter Environmental Traveling Companions, provides affordable raft tours for people of any fitness, young and old, or you can take a picnic at Hammon Grove Park off Highway 20. By the end of October, you may easily spot male salmon jousting for dominance, and females digging their nests.
And feast your imagination on spring-run salmon in the Upper Yuba River watershed. They used to be here in amazing abundance, nourishing native peoples and wildlife more than any other element of the harvest. They may yet return in our lifetime. That’s food for the soul.
Gary Reedy is director of the river science program for South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL).
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