Salmon Stronghold: Refuge, Safe Harbor, Sanctuary

© Thomas Dunklin, used with permission.

As salmon populations dwindle perilously due to habitat destruction, changing ocean conditions, climate change, and overfishing of some species, it is somewhat miraculous that there are still rivers that provide sanctuary for wild salmon populations. Many of the rivers in northern California and southern Oregon have been dammed and diverted for water and energy. They have also been deforested—raising the water temperatures and choking streams and rivers with large amounts of sediment and debris.  It is encouraging to discover wild rivers and streams where deep pools harbor beautiful concentrations of wild salmon that embody native genetic diversity and adaptability.

The Smith River flows from south-central Oregon through Del Norte County, California, to the Pacific Coast north of Crescent City. The Smith River Alliance (SRA)  has been “Protecting land and water, restoring habitat, and stewarding the Smith River,” for over three decades. The Smith River harbors many species of native fish including coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead trout along with California’s most robust population of cutthroat trout. The deep, emerald blue-green pools of the Smith River are famous for their beauty as well as their importance in providing a refuge for fish. Grant Werschkull, Executive Director of the SRA, says “We consider the salmon a barometer or totem of the success of restoration work.”

California’s 2nd Congressional District representative, Jared Huffman, knows first-hand the beauty of these wild creatures. He and his family spend time on these rivers. Huffman also appreciates the deep connections between the people of the Pacific Northwest and these ancient fish. Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest are tied economically and spiritually to these fish and the lands and waters that provide salmon sanctuary.  In recognition of the beauty and importance of salmon and these deep human connections, he introduced the Salmon Focused Investments in Sustainable Habitats, or FISH Act (HR 4723).  The Act would direct federal agencies to identify important wild salmon spawning areas and engage in restoration activities in those river watersheds. The bill also directs agencies to include plans for restoration and protection for the identified federal lands and waters where these sanctuaries exist.

Congressman Huffman looked to the Smith River Alliance and the Wild Salmon Center in Oregon for protection strategies. Guido Rahr, President and CEO of the Center, is internationally renowned for promoting the concept of salmon strongholds. As the Center website states, “The term ‘stronghold’ refers to a watershed, multiple watersheds, or other defined areas where wild salmon populations are strong and diverse, and habitats are highly functioning and intact (free of hydroelectric dams, hard-rock mines, and other damaging development). Salmon strongholds represent watersheds that have high salmon and steelhead productivity, and genetic diversity, as well as outstanding habitat important to sustaining these wild Pacific salmon species.”

Werschkull agrees: “We are fortunate here on the North Coast to be home to multiple salmon stronghold rivers. Investing in these stronghold rivers should be a top priority. Strong runs of salmon are good for our coastal communities, tribes, and they are a critical source of jobs and food. What could be better? Stronghold rivers are nature’s restoration engine. These rivers are the source of wild salmon to repopulate impaired rivers and streams following dam removal and habitat restoration.”

Congressman Huffman sees the importance of these stronghold watersheds. “Under the Salmon FISH Act, watersheds across the West that support thriving salmon runs, like the Smith River in California’s second congressional district, will receive the support they need through new protections and funding to restore and maintain salmon abundance. Healthy salmon watersheds bring ecological and economic benefits, and they have deep importance to the tribes who have relied on salmon since time immemorial. My bill’s approach of protecting the thriving salmon rivers that still exist will increase the resiliency of salmon populations and keep good habitat intact. That will benefit everyone who depends on salmon for their income, culture, recreation, and more—including the tribes and fishermen along California’s north coast.”

Scott Greacen, of the Friends of the Eel River in Arcata, California, understands the value of this strategy. “Friends of the Eel River supports the FISH Act. This bill will support salmon and steelhead protection and recovery by identifying and helping to restore key salmon strongholds. We must protect these critical watersheds better in the future than we have in the past.”

The FISH Act would adopt one step in a much larger strategy needed to recover our salmon populations. Congressman Huffman is looking at strengthening offshore fisheries protections through the Magnuson Stevens Act which authorizes monitoring of fish population then adjusts catch limits to match species abundance.

Also needed are stronger protections and restoration efforts on degraded rivers such as the Klamath and Eel Rivers which have suffered over a century of bad forestry practices in the watersheds, dams, and other development. Legislation such as Huffman’s HR 2550, the Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act, would designate 370 miles of some of our wildest remaining rivers for protection and designate large tracts of public forest lands for restoration.

“Rep. Huffman’s proposed FISH Act is an important—indeed, urgently necessary—part of what we are going to need to do to keep the fish coming back,” states Greacen.

Werschkull is enthusiastic. “We look forward to a time when Congressman Huffman’s FISH Act will be passed by Congress and signed by our President. We need to continue to work with our communities and state and national partners to advance
this legislation.”

You can write to Congressman Huffman in support of the FISH Act, his Wilderness Act and other legislation to assure generations of fish and people coexist. Rep. Huffman’s contact information can be found in this EcoNews issue on page 14.

To learn more about the Smith River Alliance go to: https://smithriveralliance.org/.

For more about the Wild Salmon Center check out: https://www.wildsalmoncenter.org/.

For more about Friends of the Eel River check out their website at: https://eelriver.org/.

To learn more about the Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forest Act go to: https://mountainsandrivers.org/.