73.5 F
English English Español Español
September 29, 2023

Chinook revival captured on videotape

In the first week of November the rains came. Runoff flooded
into creeks which flowed into the Russian River which surged toward
the sea, invigorating the chinook salmon milling about in the
river’s lower reaches.
Already interns working for Sonoma County Water Agency had
counted record numbers of chinooks in the river. There were nearly
1,000 fish counted at Wohler Dam on October 2, the day after the
Vacation Beach and Johnson’s Beach dams had been dismantled,
sending a surge of water downstream.
Previously, 807 was the most chinooks counted in a week.
As October continued there were a few fish each day, with
increasing chinook activity in the middle of the month — 200 on
the 15th, 350 on the 16th — then another lull.
And then came the rain in November. 2,200 chinooks pushed up
through the Wohler Dam fish ladders on November 7. The next day
many more salmon blasted through the ladders’ turbulent flow, but
the water had become so murky that poor visibility made counting
Nevertheless, by mid-November, more than 5,300 chinook salmon
had been counted at Wohler Dam.
Until recently it was thought that few, if any, chinooks spawned
in the Russian River. The book “Inland Fishes of California:
revised and expanded” by Peter Moyle is considered the
authoritative source on the subject. The book asserts that Chinook
salmon disappeared from the river with the advent of agriculture
and water projects, and that attempts to re-establish chinooks in
the river have not been successful.
In support of this position Moyle cited “A history of the
salmonid dedcline in the Russian River,” a 1996 report by Steiner
Environmental Consulting. Steiner had cited historical literature
on the river dating back to the 1940s and 50s. It turned out they
all were just plain wrong.
Water Agency Senior Environmental Specialist Shawn Chase still
contends, however, that these are valuable, and usually reliable,
authorities in the field. He attributes the mistaken conclusions to
the lack of fisheries work done in the Russian River.
In 1999 the Water Agency decided to install a video camera at
the top of each of Wohler Dam’s two fish ladders. The cameras were
standard Sony models identical to those used for convenience store
surveillance, submerged in waterproof cases. Banks of red
light-emitting diodes (LEDs) provided light at night.
The Agency had a specific purpose for the cameras. “No one had
ever verified if our fish ladders worked,” said Sean White,
Principal Environmental Specialist for the Water Agency. The goal
was to find out.
“We were just checking the equipment,” said White, “and we
started seeing chinook salmon.”
There had been no expectation that the cameras would be so
effective they could actually be used to count migrating fish. But,
to the agency’s great surprise, a chinook salmon run was under way
in the Russian River, and they were able to count over 200 fish
that year.
A year later, from August 20 to December 24, 1,322 chinooks were
Then in 2001 the agency counted 1,299 chinooks, but there were
almost certainly more. That year the Wohler Dam — a massive rubber
bladder — was intentionally deflated during the second week of
November because of heavy rains. Though the chinook run was far
from over, the counting for the year was finished.
Now, this year’s chinook salmon run is closing in on 6,000 —
and still counting.
Some have asked if the chinooks could somehow have come over
into the Russian River from the Eel River, through the Potter
Valley Project. White said that the Bodega Marine Lab has
determined the Russian River salmon to be much closer, genetically,
to Central Valley chinooks than to any fish in the Eel River. In
other words, they are definitely not Eel River fish.
The numbers compiled by the Water Agency are not estimates. The
submerged camcorders feed to VCRs housed in a building above the
dam. Video tapes are taken to Water Agency offices on Capricorn Way
in Santa Rosa where interns count every fish that appears on the
For a day when few fish were headed upstream, an intern might
take 45 minutes to fast forward through 24 hours worth of tape. But
when masses of salmon fill the screen it takes as long as 10 hours
— working through some sections of tape frame by frame — to
complete the day’s count.
White said that there has been a trend up and down the Northern
California coast toward very large salmon returns. A cycle seems to
prevail in which there will be a decade or two of strong runs in
Alaska and British Columbia followed by strong runs further south.
“There seems to be good ocean survival in our part of the ocean
now,” White said. “That’s good news.”
But the specialists at the Water Agency are making no
predictions. “Every year we think we’re getting a handle on what’s
happening and then the next year they do something different,” said
Chase. “Fish don’t tend to read textbooks.”
Chase said the Agency has been following the present salmon
migration with great care after the water flow from Lake Mendocino
was cut back. the biologists were especially concerned following
the premature death of several thousand migrating salmon in the
Klamath river several weeks ago. “We were snorkeling at least twice
a week to check on the fish’s welfare,” said Chase.
Using GPS technology, they have also been mapping the location
of the chinooks’ redds — the spawning nests salmon create in the
rocky stream bed. Most of the spawning is upstream from
Healdsburg’s Memorial Dam. Many spawning fish have been sighted
near Cloverdale.
The migrating salmon appear to be very healthy, Chase said. Most
of the spawning is expected to be complete by mid-December.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here