Salmon runs typically generate excitement, particularly in the great northern rivers where progress has yet to completely hamper the spawning efforts of the red-fleshed fish.
The current runs on California’s Klamath-Trinity and Sacramento river systems, for example, are breaking long-standing records, and anglers have flocked to the area.
But farther south, at this picturesque seaport in San Luis Obispo County, where the meandering San Luis Obispo Creek drains into the sea, such runs have been nonexistent for as long as anyone can remember.
Scattered salmon--mostly strays--are caught outside the harbor each season by sport and commercial anglers, but that has been the extent of the local fishery in recent decades.
Imagine, then, the excitement generated in late September, when hundreds of king salmon entered the mouth of the creek, jumping and swirling their way upstream to spawn.
Local television crews converged on the scene and newspapers featured the rare salmon run with front-page stories.
Visiting tourists stopped along the side of the road to witness the event, and golfers--the creek meanders through the local course--were distracted.
Frustrated anglers, aware that it is illegal to fish in the creek, gazed at the colorful fish they would have liked to catch.
It was the talk of the town.
But for Paul Cleveland and other members of Central Coast Salmon Enhancement Inc., the return of those salmon meant much more.
“They’re our fish,” Cleveland, 26, said proudly.
For the last 5 years, Cleveland, who manages the salmon enhancement project, and the rest of CCSEI have been releasing about 50,000 juvenile salmon into the ocean every 6 months. Some of the fish are fin-clipped for identification.
Young king salmon generally spend their first 5 weeks in inland rivers and streams before making their way to coastal estuaries, and ultimately the ocean. After 3 to 5 years, they return to their native rivers and creeks to reproduce.
Cleveland’s salmon are different, though. They even differ from normal hatchery-raised salmon--since salmon spawning runs have declined significantly in all California streams during the last 30 years, more and more rivers are relying on hatchery-raised salmon to maintain healthy populations--because they are never released into streams.
Born and bred in a hatchery in Peterson, Minn., these salmon spend a few days in a truck, traveling 2,200 miles to the end of Harford Pier at Avila Beach, then are unloaded into specially designed pens moored in the saltwater near the harbor’s breakwater.
There, they undergo a 7-day acclimation process, during which time the salinity level is slowly increased.
“They also learn the scent of the area, so they’ll know where to return,” Cleveland said.
This method of ocean-pen rearing, used extensively in Japan and Norway, but little used in California, where local inland hatcheries are the normal suppliers of salmon fingerlings, has been nearly perfected by CCSEI, the group says.
The volunteer, nonprofit organization, which operates on a $70,000 annual budget, lost 95% of its fish the first year. And the salmon fingerlings cost 25 cents apiece.
“We didn’t properly acclimate the fish,” Cleveland said. “It was a learning year.”
This year, Cleveland said, the mortality rate before release was just 2%.
Sportfishermen began catching the highly prized fish regularly last spring, an indication that the project was working.
“Several had the marking of our program (a right ventral fin clip),” Cleveland said.
Commercial catches were noted, too, and then, during the summer, the fish began to move into the harbor and pier fishermen began to catch the salmon regularly, some weighing more than 20 pounds, according to Cleveland.
The local “Whopper of the Week” contest was being won increasingly by catches of king salmon.
But it was the late September run that generated the most interest, as the creek’s mouth became filled with more than 200 king salmon, many in the 25-pound class.
Cleveland’s initial goal--proving he could get the fish to return in significant numbers--had been reached.
“I knew they would return, but I couldn’t believe the numbers,” he said.
His long-term goal: to establish a viable fishery in the creek.
In two swoops of a cotton-mesh beach-seine in the creek mouth, the group netted 23 king salmon weighing 384 pounds. According to Cleveland, a marine biologist, 11 were females filled with eggs--about 5,300 apiece--and ready to spawn. The largest fish weighed 27 pounds.
“The fishery is declining,” Cleveland said of his program. “We just want to restore it.”
That would seem a noble ambition, and, if things are going as well as Cleveland says, a worthwhile program. The Department of Fish and Game, however, doesn’t see it that way.
Though some DFG money has been spent on the project--mainly for the purchase of fish and food--the program has come under fire, particularly from Bob Rawstron, the DFG’s inland fisheries chief.
“We don’t want (the salmon) back because San Luis Obispo Creek is generally too dry when the salmon come back,” he said. “Right now it’s a mud puddle: too low and too warm. What are (CCSEI members) going to do, all flush their toilets at the same time to put water in the creek?”
Cleveland maintains that a sewage treatment plant about 5 miles up the creek is a constant source of water, and that all that is needed--aside from habitat restoration projects--are ways to cool the water and filter its pollutants.
"(Rawstron is) one of about three people with the DFG who are opposed to our program,” he said. “He just doesn’t know enough about it.”
CCSEI president Jay Elder said: “The reason the DFG has dragged its feet is mainly because of habitat problems. But we’re working with the San Luis Obispo Land Conservancy and the community to improve the habitat.”
In 1986, the conservancy was awarded an Urban Creeks Restoration grant, the use of which is expected to provide better waste-water management and promote a “focus on creating and retaining a viable and life-sustaining creek corridor throughout the watershed.”
Henry Terry, 74, a CCSEI coordinator, said the creek had little trouble sustaining a salmon population when he used to fish here, before all the construction and construction- and agriculture-related habitat damage.
“I’ve lived up here for 42 years and I’ve gone salmon fishing here before,” he said. “Three (salmon) was the limit, and you could catch the limit fairly easily. . . . Then about 20 years ago, all the salmon began to disappear.”
Those weren’t king salmon, though, Rawstron said.
“King salmon (strays) have always been there (in the ocean), but they never used San Luis Obispo Creek, even before the white man was around,” he said.
“The salmon (Terry was) talking about is coho salmon, an entirely different species that enters the creek much later in the year when there is more likely to be adequate water . . . much colder water, I might add.”
Coho salmon, Rawstron says, have a life history more like steelhead, which are more adaptable to poor water conditions.
“Until they can show a good flow during October (the general spawning period for king salmon), I have difficulty in believing it’s an effective program,” he said. “In my view, it’s an ineffective use of state dollars.”
Cleveland, who already has had plans drawn for a hatchery a few miles up the creek, said his group will continue in its efforts to bring salmon back to Avila Beach, with or without the help of the DFG.
“These southern areas, devoid of existing wild populations, may have only the choice to accept man’s ability to support artificial populations, or to have no salmon at all,” he said.