Running for the Salmon

On October 25, The Bay Institute's staff scientist Alison Weber-Stover ran the first leg of the Salmon Run for Rivers, an endurance relay race from San Francisco to Sacramento organized by Friends of the River, Fish Revolution!, and SalmonAID. On October 30, the Run culminates in a public presentation of thousands of signatures on a petition to the State Water Resources Control Board to increase flows from the San Joaquin River basin to the estuary to help migrating salmon and steelhead. Read her blog about why she's running, and don't forget to sign the petition!

In her blog, Alison writes: 
As a scientist at The Bay Institute, my goal is to inform policy makers and the public about how to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta from the Sierra to the sea. So why was I running in a relay race across the Golden Gate Bridge in the rain to raise awareness about California's rivers and the species that depend on them?

I was raised in California and I love California's rivers and wild places. And I love salmon. Many years ago, I waded into a northern California river during the fall to conduct a spawning survey. Salmon bumped into me, almost knocking me down. The power and determination of these massive migratory fish near the end of their jouneys impressed itself on me as they swam upstream. Central Vally fall-run Chinook salmon often begin their migration to the ocean when they are the size of my finger, and return years later, to their natal streams; they use their sense of smell to find the stream where they were born. As someone who can barely find my way using a map application on a mobile phone, I'm understandably awed. 

But that's not all! During that journey back to their birth site, their bodies undergo major physical changes so they can survive in fresh water rather than the salty ocean; their skin coloring changes from silver to red, and the male's jaws morph into hooked masses for fighting and attracting mates. All of this occurs while these giant 30-40 pound fish refuse to eat. In fact, as they migrate, they digest their own bodies and move red coloration (a powerful antioxidant) out of their flesh and into their eggs and skin. After arriving at suitable spawning grounds, they fight for mates and clean river gravel before depositing and fertilizing eggs. Having completed their life cycle, their decaying bodies nourish the river and surrounding terrestrial environments. Salmon have been repeating these behaviors for millions of years. They are truly amazing creatures. 

However, habitat alteration and management of our freshwater ecosystems in the past 150 years have severly impaired the function of California's rivers, devastating many native fish populations. Here's a short list of facts that boggles my mind: 
  • In most years since the middle of the 20th century, virtually all of the water is removed from the San Joaquin River - the second largest river in California - leaving some stretches completely dewatered and others in such poor condition that the state's largest spring Chinook salmon run was completely destroyed and other species decimated.
  • The rest of the watershed is not much better. Overall, salmon and steelhead are blocked from ~95% of their spawning habitat in the Central Valley by impassable dams and other barriers.
  • The Bay and Delta have lost over ~95% of their historic wetlands.
  • Some native fish species have been reduced from their former abundances by more than 90% (winter-run salmon, steelhead) and others by up to 99%.
  • All of the Chinook salmon and one of two steelhead populations in the Bay Area are endangered, threatened, or species of concern.
  • The Smith River is the ONLY major river system in California that remains undammed. 
Seems dire, eh?

But, reason for hope still remains. Balancing water demands between human uses and ecological needs is complex, but our rivers and native fish species can recover if we allow enough water to flow from the mountains to the ocean. With a combination of restoration and careful management, salmon populations have demonstrated they can rebound. For example, because of our San Joaquin River Restoration program, fall and spring-run Chinook salmon are being re-introduced to a river from which they were eliminated for over 70 years. When completed, this and other restoration programs we work on will benefit California's recreational and commercial salmon fishery.

For salmon and other fish and wildlife species that depend on our rivers, hope depends on a major paradigm shift in how we Californians manage and value water. We can restore salmon habitats (repair stream corridors and replace spawning gravels), but without adequate flows of cold water, our salmon won't survive. That's why I'm working with my colleagues at The Bay Institute to present scientific evidence for the ecological importance of freshwater flows to our riverine and estuarine ecosystems. The amount, timing, magnitude, and duration of freshwater flowing in a river have cascading effects on habitat availability and function, as well as on species abundance, and the productivity of aquatic food webs.

So why am I running along the path that salmon swin as they return to spawn every year? I am humbled by the beauty and perseverance of this native fish. And, while past mismanagement of rivers and water that has crippled their populations saddens me, I want people to know about the key solutions that can and will promote their recovery. Together we can support actions that will restore and sustain our magnificent salmon populations for the future. 

Read the Official Press Release About the Delivery of this Petition to the State Water Resources Control Board

Read the Sign-on Letter from Non-Profits Across California to the State Water Resources Control Board