Old-timers here say they can remember when king salmon ran so thick in the Mattole River that a person could walk across the water without getting wet.
“Farmers used to come down to the river with pitch forks and pitch them out on the river bank to feed their hogs,” said John Vargo, a local resident. “At least that’s what they say.”
Perhaps that really did happen once, but it hasn’t happened in a long time.
Decades of human encroachment in the Mattole watershed have caused a sharp decline in the numbers of king and silver salmon that spawn in the river, which is hidden in the remote Coastal Range mountains of southern Humboldt County.
The Mattole story is one that could be told of dozens of rivers and streams in Northern California. Once, they helped support a robust salmon fishing industry, but have since stumbled into decline.
In the last few years, however, groups of local residents and politicians, mixing state aid and foundation grants with their own time and trouble, have banded together to try to save what remains of this once-bountiful resource.
Along the Mattole, for example, road building, logging and farming tended to strip the 60-mile-long river of cooling shade, erode the earth along its banks and choke it with silt. Cool, running water and a gravel river bed are necessary for salmon to reproduce.
The river was not the only thing in trouble. Unchecked erosion brought on by the region’s heavy rains caused landslides and endangered homes and roads, residents said.
Faced with this slow-motion environmental disaster, people living near the Mattole--in tiny towns such Petrolia and Whitethorn and the wide-open spaces in between--decided in 1980 that it was up to them to rehabilitate the river and bring back the salmon.
Their goal is different from that of the large state-run hatcheries. Those projects of the state Department of Fish and Game rely on artificial propagation to compensate for the shrinking native fish habitat and to promote the commercial and sport fishing industries.
Local projects, on the other hand, rely on the rehabilitation of individual rivers and streams to promote the natural propagation of fish.
The two processes complement one another, said Steve Taylor, a fisheries biologist for the state. Habitat restoration is aesthetically preferable to many people, but he said it alone will not be able to supply the number of fish required by the fishing industries.
“If you want (habitat restoration) to restore the fish to their historic levels--that is, to levels seen before there was any development in the area--it can’t be done,” he said. “There is not enough habitat left.”
The DFG funnels $900,000 a year in subsidies into the various volunteer projects, but Taylor said that amount covers less than half what is needed.
Along the Mattole, for example, a coalition of community groups called the Mattole Restoration Council, founded in 1982, has labored for the last few years without state aid, relying instead on foundation grants, volunteer labor, even an occasional fund-raising dance.
The council has worked throughout the 300-square-mile river basin, planting bare hillsides along the river with thousands of trees and bushes, rebuilding crumbling stream banks and clearing logjams that dam the river.
Meanwhile, one of the council’s member groups, the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group, has been busy bolstering the numbers of king (Chinook) and silver (coho) salmon in the small, twisting river.
The process seems to be working, said Gary Peterson, the group’s fisheries biologist. In addition to the usual large number of steelhead, an ocean-going rainbow trout, silver and king salmon also are returning to the river and its tributaries, such as Mill Creek near here.
Encouraged by early success, Peterson, Doug Young, a Humboldt State University graduate student, and local volunteers are working to maintain the number of fish in the river by artificial means.
Peterson said this will continue until the watershed improvements are given enough time to let the river repair itself and again be able to naturally support large numbers of fish.
The Salmon Support Group is especially interested in developing a community of fish at home in the Mattole. By promoting specialization, Peterson said he hopes to avoid the problems of hatcheries, where genetic conformity sometimes allows a single disease to kill large numbers of fish at once.
“We feel it’s very important to maintain native stocks in the river of origin,” Peterson said. “Then we feel they’ll be better-adapted to native conditions, especially year-to-year local (weather) extremes.”
Peterson said the Mattole presents an unusual opportunity to test the idea of the superiority of “pure, unaltered genetic strain.” The river is one of only five in the state that has not been planted by conservationists with non-native salmon.
The process began last year with the capture of four native female Mattole River king salmon and the artificial fertilization of their eggs, or roe, by male kings also netted in the river.
Thousands of resulting fry, or young fish, are raised in tanks filled with water drawn from the river. It is hoped that this, together with the river’s trait of being cut off from the ocean by seasonal sand bars, will help the fish to “remember” where they should return to spawn.
Before they are released, however, 10,000 of the 13,400 fry to be released this year--about 97,500 fry have been released since the project began in 1982--were chosen for a special tagging process.
Slivers of micro-encoded wire were injected into their snouts late in May, while, at the same time, their small, useless adipose fins were snipped off and doses of blue dye were injected into their rear fins.
These measures will identify each fish as unique to the Mattole. They also will help researchers identify when and where along the river they were released, and whether the river itself can again produce hearty fish.
“They will be able to tell which is a better release pattern: up high or right into the lagoon” at the mouth of the river, Peterson said. “All this is pertinent to how much they eat, and how many fish this river can support.”
Although there was not enough state money available this year to help the Mattole River group in particular, Taylor, the state biologist, said the value of this sort of independent effort is important to all of California.
“Steelhead and salmon are important to the overall economy of the state,” he said, noting that every dollar spent on salmon programs returns $3.50 to the economy. “Every $1 million in sales equals 385 jobs, and every fish caught makes a happy sport fisherman.”
Equally important, he added, are the aesthetic considerations.
“It is our national heritage; it is our state heritage,” he said. “It is important to us, and it is important for us to watch out for those generations not even here yet.”