The history of salmon in Marin

12/31/2014

The unfunny vaudeville show playing out around silver salmon in general—and their existence in Marin County in particular—is appalling. I am disgusted with the self-serving nature of some who claim to be defenders of the fish, and with the ill-informed Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has ignored and played fast and loose with the species, depending on what years you look at. But most of all, my tears are for the 99 percent loss of a natural treasure, the widespread refusal to understand what happened and the inept, disjointed, puny efforts to effect a very doable recovery. 

There is a near-complete lack of sound information about silver salmon. There used to be so many that no one bothered to put them on the radar, as if they were pests like sugar ants. Now, the questions of how many there were and when, where and how they spawned hang in the air as an indictment of the careless treatment of most of our once-vast natural resources. (Those wishing to take a refresher course in this should read Peter Matthiessen’s “Wildlife in America.”) To know the truth about silvers in West Marin, one would have to have been here before 1960, and walked the streams as I did, year after year. I now fear I may be the only person still alive who knows the truth. But with no photographic evidence or authentic notebook, I can be easily dismissed as a malcontent old man mumbling in the park. I should have spoken out before this nearly twelfth hour. But now, with doomsday in our faces, if anyone thinks I can be ushered out of the room, they have another thing coming. 

Starting when I was 10 or 11, my mother would take me once a week from our home in San Anselmo to visit her uncle, the artist Maurice Del Mue, in Forest Knolls. I took my sketch box and painted outside while they visited. Then we would drive to the Rouge et Noir French Cheese Factory (possibly the only place in America at the time where you could get a truly fine European cheese). I loved the Nicasio Valley. We would drive through what I called the Black Canyon, now blocked by the dam, then break out into the open. I’d have her pull over so I could make sketches from the front seat, and if the season was right, there were places I could get out, walk to the creek to watch thousands of salmon hard at their procreation ritual. When I turned 16 in 1955, I immediately bought a car and booked out to West Marin, where I spent the following 15 years hunting, fishing and painting nearly every day. 

During that time, I variously counted from 6,000 to 12,000 spawning salmon between about a mile below the gravel company, where Nicasio joins Papermill, up through Tocaloma and Samuel P. Taylor State Park to Shafters Falls, from there to the base of Carson Dam and up through Lagunitas, Forest Knolls and Sam Geronimo to the fish ladder. By this time, the Nicasio run was wiped out. I reached a high count on Little Devil’s Gulch Creek of 600, and on Olema Creek of 1,000 (though because much of that creek was hard to get to, the number was probably about 3,000). Never was I able to reach a count of more than 200 from the ladder to Woodacre. 

Yet last week’s Light quoted Manfred Kittel, the coho recovery coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, calling San Geronimo Creek a “significant sub-watershed through which coho may pass on their journey to spawn.” Clearly Mr. Kittel does not appreciate that silver salmon do not seek headwaters in which to spawn. They are, by nature, short stream fish. Steelhead, on the other hand, do push far upstream. They run mostly two months later than the silvers, and this allows them to spawn upstream of the salmon, thereby avoiding any disruption of already buried nests. 

The irony is not lost on me that the Marin Municipal Water District has a “fishery program manager.” I would be most curious to know what fisheries are being managed. The only major habitat degradation in the silver salmon’s entire northern California habitat is right here in Marin, compliments of the water district’s Carson and Nicasio Dams. Every stream from the San Lorenzo River north to the Mattole is in exactly the same, or in some cases, better condition than it was 60 years ago, and this includes what’s left of the Lagunitas watershed. When a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife reports that the reason for the disappearance of the run of 3,000 silver salmon in Redwood Creek, which drains Muir Woods, is due to “environmental degradation,” I want to look that person right in the eye and call him a fool or a liar. 

May we also discuss the 74 chinook salmon reported to be spawning in Papermill Creek? To quote Mr. Kittel: “Straying is a normal part of a healthy salmon population.” Aside from the depressing fact that salmon everywhere are anything but healthy, goats and donkeys stray, salmon do not. About 50 years ago, an angler reported what he claimed to be a lone chinook circling in the lagoon of the Garcia River. That report was never substantiated, and stands alone in my information bank (which spans a century). Mr. Kittel told the Light that though neither chum nor chinook are native to Marin’s watersheds, chinook began appearing as far south as Sacramento decades ago. Could he possibly be referring to the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems that, for a millennium, have drained the Sierras from Mount Shasta to the southern Tehachapis, a labyrinth of rivers for a billion chinook salmon that we completely destroyed? 

One of the most important aspects of the silver salmon tragedy has gone almost unmentioned: these fish were the mainstay of the California commercial fishing fleet, those hundreds of independent fishermen and their beautiful small boats harbored at Monterey, Half Moon Bay, Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, Bodega Bay, Noyo and Fort Bragg. King salmon run deep and were often hard to locate, but the millions of silvers were always right there on top, an absolutely reliable, completely sustainable food source and a key element in a way of life largely gone now. The similar loss of the environmentally sound Drakes Bay Oyster Farm pales compared to the loss of the silver salmon. 

In both those instances we have seen a government of the government, by the government and for the government. The monstrous violation by foreign factory-sized commercial fishing ships to within spitting distance of the northern California coast was reported to Fish and Game, which chose to ignore the complaints. Now they expect us to believe their hands are clean, and that normal citizens are to blame for imagined habitat degradation. 

The sad fact is that nearly 100 percent of California’s vast population cares nothing about wild fish. So the burden of protection—in some cases involving a return from the brink—rests upon a few shoulders, and if those few do not figure out how to get on the same science-based page, there will be a certain number of beautiful things that we will all have to kiss goodbye.