Coho Salmon Recovery

Story and Photographs by Joshua Asel

 

The full importance of recovering coho salmon hadn’t hit me until I realized exactly how many people and organizations have come together to try to make their dream a reality. Public resource agencies, non-profit NGOs, and hundreds of private land owners in all, despite whatever differences they may or may not have, believe the salmon have every right and need to be here. And maybe more so in the way that nature doesn’t need us but it is we that actually need it to keep thousands of jobs, to help prevent excessive erosion, to fuel nutrients into our watersheds, to stay a part of the three billion dollar a year industry of the Pacific Northwest, and to keep our rich cultural history alive. For an anadromous fish that only lives three years, that’s quite an impact. It really goes to remind me about how fully humans are impacted by all aspects of nature.

Two male coho salmon pause for a moment inside a shallow bank to gauge each other’s size and power. They are especially red after going through physical changes from entering the spawning phase of their lives. © Joshua Asel

 

Each year, half a billion salmon make up to a 3,000 mile journey from the Pacific Ocean back to their natal rivers and streams, transitioning from salt to fresh water for the very last time in their short lives. The salmon return to massive river networks to spawn a new generation of young inside of one of the richest ecosystems on the entire planet, the West Coast of North America. But their stories start… at the top of a mountain.

In Northern California, melted snow and rainfall that fell from clouds driven up above coastal mountains by strong winds cascade down through carved valleys, creating massive networks like veins, which spread and intersect, and then come together to form the 110 mile stretch that is the Russian River.

The endangered coho salmon of California are slightly different from other species of salmon. While others start to make their way upriver in the late summer, coho start heading up during fall. They have come a long way while dodging predators like dolphins, sharks, bald eagles, seals and sea lions. If the rain and snow melt does not run down in time, which tends to be a problem for California in recent years, the coho will sometimes wait at the mouth of the Russian River with their predators until the water does rise again.

The sudden change from salt to fresh starts to shut down their organs, signifying the beginning of the end of their lives. They even stop eating and drinking, using the last of their energy to carry themselves upstream until they reach their birthplace. The coho will spawn there and protect their eggs for as long as possible while their bodies are already heavily deteriorated; their last act of almost unmatched parental care. They die shortly after, but their legacy continues in death by feeding the surrounding environments with phosphate, nitrogen, and carbon, creating massive growth in the forests humans have come to love.

 

Two more days of research go by. And finally, after walking three miles total, this was the only coho salmon we could find. An adult female, preparing to die after her long journey, guards her eggs under gravel in this numbingly cold tributary. There could be over 1,000 in one redd and every single one is a precious hope. © Joshua Asel

 

Two coho salmon males race up and down the stream furiously, testing each other’s strength during spawning season. A couple dozen feet from the battle, a female waits for her champion. She is dying, like the rest of the spawning salmon and has already dug her redd, a wide, shallow bowl of a nest. And more, she is the only female in this section of the tributary tucked into the hills of Healdsburg, California.

Nick Bauer, a California Sea Grant Fisheries Biologist with the Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program (RRSSMP), helped me locate the samlonids. That day we found seven coho salmon going up that Mill Creek tributary, which Nick tells me is the same amount he found in this same place for all of last year. There should be thousands in this offshoot of the Russian River, representing only a fraction of the estimated 400,000 individuals in Northern California alone. At the turn of the new millennia, there were less than ten to be found. At that point, biologists knew something had to be done about the salmon.

 

Hand-held transmitters checking for electronic tags help make the job flow smoothly. © Joshua Asel

 

No photographer should expect to photograph swarms of salmon here. Traveling on foot upriver for a few miles at a time with different teams, we would be lucky to see sometimes only one or two adults. Each day we journeyed out into different creeks, I could see a certain emptiness where a massive nutritional pulse used to be.

 

Freedom at last. Coho smolt from the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery are dumped into a wild ecosystem. Some pause for a moment to gather their surroundings, others take off frantically. After a few minutes, most of the salmon school together again for safety and find suitable hiding spots for that moment. Inevitably, their instincts will take over sending them on the life cycle of their ancestors.  © Joshua Asel

 

Salmon runs surge their surrounding environments with thousands of tons of essential nutrients carried with them from the ocean, creating a burst of forest growth. And after at least 3 million years of evolution, salmon have also become the source of food for over 137 other species, including ourselves. The magnitude of what salmon provide for ecosystems and economies makes salmon one of the top keystone species on the entire planet. For humans, this means providing a viable source of protein for millions of people, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and becoming a significant icon in North Western American culture.

 

Electrofishing rods are powered by what looks like Ghostbusters’ backpacks. © Joshua Asel

 

“Without the timely intervention of the Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program, Coho Salmon would probably be extinct in the Russian River.” Says Nick. Over 500 private land owners in cooperation with public resources agencies, and non-profit organizations have, what looks like to me, pulled off a major feat in itself by creating, not just trusting communities, but measurable economic impact. Hundreds of jobs created (3,000 in the last decade for California), 225 million spent on in stream habitat restoration in the same amount of time, and creating as many or more jobs for every one million dollars spent compared to other industries.

 

Determining exactly how successful the previous spawning season was is imperative to documenting relative abundance and spatial distribution. Snorkeling biologists in dry suits take turns floating around in different pools as we travel upstream, counting the fish while using dive lights. As you might imagine, dry summer’s insufficient stream flow is a significant bottleneck to the recovery of salmon and steelhead populations. © Joshua Asel

 

During the spring, RRSSMP operates downstream migrant smolt traps on certain streams. In the funnel net traps, which feed into large wood crates, biologists pull salmon, steelhead trout, sticklebacks, pacific lampreys, and a variety of other fish species out onto the riverbank where a small in-the-field research station is set up. One after one, each salmon and steelhead was weighed, measured, checked for existing tags, counted, and then released. The other fish are just along for the ride for the moment, and then get released back into creek flow too. Funnel net traps work well, but there’s more than one way to tag a fish.

The demand for water is at its highest in the summer, when the water levels are the lowest. And when the creeks are sucked dry by the blazing sun in California, there’s only one way to monitor salmon and steelhead, by electrofishing. Associated researchers get strapped up with big electronic backpacks connected to a rod with a circular, mild stunner at the end of it, which gets dipped into the water and stuns any fish within a few inches of it. Despite being shocked, electrofishing is the safest way for the fish to be caught. Since last fall when eggs were laid, the spawn have hatched, grown, and learned survival skills necessary for their epic migration.

Around the entire Pacific Northwest, radical steps are being taken to protect strongholds of salmon. If we cannot find and protect the most intact remaining rivers, salmon habitat will be politically and economically expensive to reclaim. But by learning from past mistakes and taking an aggressive, proactive and creative approach to habitat restoration, coho salmon and other salmonid species will come back.

Josh Asel has had an innate interest and passion for wildlife and conservation despite growing up in a big city. While learning more about public opinion during his grassroots outreach conservation efforts, he discovered that the human wildlife-conflict issue was impacting our Planet in more ways than one and so he began shifting his focus in photography to capture these impending issues.
An award-winning Wildlife Photographer and Saiga Antelope Ambassador, Joshua is the Founder and Director of Wild Expectations. He also instructs outdoor classes on how to ID birds of prey in real-time and how to track large carnivores without assistance from hounds or radio-telemetry and was a Judge for the 2017 California Watchable Wildlife: Photo of the Year Competition.
Asel is working toward becoming an Emerging Photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers and has aspirations to be a regular contributor to National Geographic and BBC Wildlife. His focus consists of marine life, carnivores, birds of prey, wild cats, wolves, sharks, and many other keystone species.​