Big Chinook Run on the Eel River This Year

More Fish Will Likely be Seen at Van Arsdale Station than in Decades

John Driscoll/The Times-Standard
November 19, 2010

The Eel River appears primed to have one of the best salmon runs in decades. The largest number of chinook salmon counted at the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station since records began being kept in the 1940s is 1,754. This year, already, biologists have counted 1,600 — and the run is probably not at its peak.

”The numbers we’re seeing are impressive,” said California Department of Fish and Game Associate Fisheries Biologist Scott Harris.

The run typically is in full swing around Thanksgiving, Harris said. Unlike many other rivers in the area, nearly all of the chinook and steelhead in the Eel River are wild fish, not produced in hatcheries.

The count so far dwarfs last year’s total of 519 chinook. More than a quarter of that run were jacks, or 2-year-old salmon, which run up the river to spawn a year earlier than usual. The abundance of jacks often foretells how future runs of adult fish will look.

The counts at Van Arsdale represent a fraction of the total number of fish returning to the entire watershed to spawn. Fish caught at Van Arsdale are released upstream of Cape Horn Dam.

Chinook and steelhead have struggled in the Eel River for decades. Estimated runs were between 100,000 and 800,000 fish in the late 1800s, and 50,000 to 100,000 in the early 1900s, according to a 2010 report by the University of California at Davis Center for Watershed Sciences that was commissioned by California Trout.

Fish and Game recorded 994 chinook at Van Arsdale in 1947-1948. But in 1955-1956, the next year data was available, only five chinook were counted. The next year there were none counted, though the agency estimated the number of spawning chinook throughout the entire basin in the early 1960s at 56,000.

Steelhead counted at Van Arsdale numbered in the thousands until 1963-1964 when they dropped off to 846. Last year, 324 steelhead were counted.

Both salmon and steelhead languished for years, with a spike in the mid-1980s followed by another precipitous drop-off. Their numbers have risen since the late 1990s, but coho salmon, which numbered in the tens of thousands in the early 1900s, may be headed toward extinction in the watershed by 2025, the U.C. Davis report found.

Heavy logging, water diversions, commercial fishing, invasive species and dams that block spawning habitat have all been implicated in the declines. Both chinook and steelhead are federally protected, which has led to regulations on logging, fishing and gravel extraction.

What has happened to cause the increase in fish this year is not clear, but it’s likely to be a combination of factors. Tom Weseloh with California Trout said it’s possible that a lack of competition for food in the ocean from struggling Sacramento River stocks, good ocean food conditions and limited commercial and sport harvest in recent years may all have played a role.

”All the fish I’ve seen are fat,” Weseloh said. “I’ve seen some of the largest salmon I’ve ever seen this year.”

Increased minimum flows allowed downstream from the Potter Valley Project — especially during the spring — may also be helping juvenile fish migrate out to sea in good condition, Weseloh said.

Humboldt County Supervisor Jimmy Smith said it may be too soon to say that changes on the river have made a difference, but that the larger numbers are a hopeful sign. It’s possible that estuary restoration efforts planned in the lower Eel River will continue to help the fish along, Smith said.

”The people who are really concerned about fisheries are, I hope, delighted with some good news,” Smith said.

John Driscoll covers natural resources/industry. He can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll @