Safer Waters for Salmon
May 11, 2012
Salmon fever has hit the Bay Area. Commercial salmon season opened on May 1, and local headlines are promising a banner year. The California king salmon, also known as the chinook salmon, has been mostly off limits for commercial harvest since 2008 due to dangerously dwindled stocks. The forecast is looking up this year, and biologists predict that that the king salmon may be on the rebound.
For the local coho salmon, however, it's a different story. On the federal government's endangered species list since 2005, coho remain off limits for local fishing operations. Healthy salmon fisheries depend not only on favorable ocean and climate conditions; protecting the waterways where the anadromous fish spend the early part of their lives before heading out to sea (and later return to lay their eggs) is essential as well.
In Marin, farmers have been doing their part as land stewards to create healthier habitat for native salmon to spawn. Bolinas-based Star Route Farms has been working to restore the coho and steelhead runs in Pine Gulch Creek, which were damaged by erosion from logging in the 1950s. During a series of droughts in the 1970s, salmon vanished from the creek.
In 1995, the farm built an irrigation pond to minimize its draw on the watershed. The farm then began working with government agencies and neighboring farms to build additional reservoirs along the creek. "Everyone loved the idea—the Department of Fish and Game, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Parks Service," says farm manager Doug Gallagher. "We've gotten a lot of support."
Twelve years later, Star Route was certified by Salmon-Safe, a Portland-based program born out of the Pacific Rivers Council. Developed by agronomists, biologists, and farmers, Salmon-Safe's conservation standards for farms ensure water quality protection, efficient water use, erosion and sediment control, farm runoff prevention, and integrated pest management to support healthy watersheds for salmon.
"It's different from most other agriculture sustainability initiatives in that we came out of the river advocacy community," explains Salmon-Safe executive director Dan Kent. "Our focus from the beginning has been on water quality protection and conservation of habitat and biodiversity. We saw certification as a way to inspire better farm and land management practices." At Star Route, specific measures have included installing fish screens on their irrigation pump and maintaining buffer zones around the creek.
Coho are starting to make an appearance in Pine Gulch Creek again, following their long absence. Just last December, Gallagher spotted a pair of spawners in the creek. "Very few come back to spawn, but the ones that do are successful because the creek is now stabilized," he notes.
Preserving habitat for local fish fits into Star Route's goals to farm in concert with nature. Sixty percent of the 100-acre property is left in its natural state to preserve wetlands, woodlands, grasslands, and riparian zones. "I like the wildlife," says Gallagher. "It shows that you can farm and still have lots of nature around you."
Currently, there are only four Salmon-Safe certified farms in California, three of which are in Marin. Marin Organic has served as an outreach partner, educating farms about the program and coordinating the certification process. Working primarily in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, Salmon-Safe is seeking additional California partners to expand its reach statewide.
A short distance down the coast, Green Gulch Farm at Muir Beach has also adopted Salmon-Safe practices, though their certification has lapsed and is currently up for renewal. After a visitor spotted coho in Redwood Creek in 2005, the farm started developing plans for a major restoration project to create better conditions for salmon passage and spawning.
Restoration of Redwood Creek is expensive and challenging because, in the 1950s, rancher George Wheelwright, the land's previous owner, reengineered the waterway in order to establish the fields that Green Gulch now farms. "To completely restore the creek would mean that we couldn't farm," says farm manager Sara Tashker. "We feel that the farm provides a huge benefit to our local watershed, growing food for people here and around the Bay Area."
As a compromise, the farm will be cutting back some of their fields to allow for a wider riparian buffer zone. "This is a step in the direction of creating more balance between people's needs and the needs of the fish and other creatures that share the watershed," Tashker continues. The farm hopes to begin restoration work in 2014, pending funding.
Kent says the impact of Salmon-Safe is difficult to measure, but he believes that restoring salmon runs to ecological health may help create a foundation for populations to bounce back. "In terms of actual numbers of fish, that's very hard to quantify," he acknowledges. "But we know that when Salmon-Safe practices are in place, water and habitat conditions for salmon improve."
The program uses management-based metrics, such as acreage under Salmon-Safe management, miles of riparian buffers that are restored, and acres of cover crop put into place. "The standards are based on the biological needs of wild fish," he continues.
For those excited about the return of local salmon to the farmers market: King salmon is back, but fishmonger and fisherman Larry Miyamura of Shogun Fish Company believes it may be too early to say whether 2012 will be a banner year. He says, "Some guys are doing well, but the majority are not."
To restore salmon populations to health, responsible water and land stewardship must go hand in hand with managing harvests, meaning that the salmon's fate also rests with those who bring the fish from sea to plate. "Fishermen are stewards of the resource," he says.
Watch a video about Green Gulch Farm's creek restoration project:
King salmon courtesy of the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.