Dear Salmon: We Love You!

  • Post published:June 22, 2023

Story by Zida Borcich and Joe Bridgman

The World’s Largest Salmon BBQ is right around the corner, and the North Coast is anticipating the arrival of thousands of fans, many of whom make the annual event at Fort Bragg’s South Noyo Harbor a must-do excursion. It’s a joyful celebration of diverse community participation, great food, great music, and great fun, all for a great cause. It is the only fundraiser put on by the Salmon Restoration Association and has been going strong and stronger since 1972, when it was started as a friendly potluck for fishermen and their families to connect and celebrate the salmon harvest. As the name implies, over the last fifty-two years it has evolved to become something much grander: a driving force to save our beloved and endangered keystone species. The money made at the feast gets portioned out by the Salmon Restoration Association among environmental allies who are involved in restoring habitat and bringing back populations of King (Chinook) and Coho salmon, and steelhead, for these species’ future and ours. In a collaboration of passionate scientists, fisher people, environmental agencies, local businesses, government entities, and concerned individuals, a web of care has developed in response to the plight of our imperiled salmonid species that is a model of community cooperation and the-buck-lands-here responsibility. Still, a specter lurks beneath the festivities because of the recent closure of the California salmon season for both commercial and recreational fisheries.

This photo shows downed wood in the South Fork of Ten Mile River and is an example of how entire trees that are placed instream can create fish habitat.
Photo provided.

Our salmon populations are so stressed that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Service, decided that ocean salmon fisheries, originally scheduled to open on April 1, would be canceled along the entire coast—from Cape Falcon, Oregon, to the U.S.-Mexico border. This is only the second time the whole fishery has been closed (it happened in 2009), and though it seems imperative to give the salmon a chance to recover, the cost of this measure is devastating to the economies of many coastal communities, indigenous tribes, and commercial and recreational fishing families; some of those who fish for a living predict this closure will spell the end of their businesses.
The federal Western Geographic Science Center cites many of the reasons there are so few salmon left in northern California. “Logging an area around a stream reduces the shade and nutrients available to the stream, raises water temperatures, and increases the amount of silt or dirt in the water, which can choke out developing eggs,” says the center’s website. “Dams cause fish to die from the shock of going through the turbines and from predators that eat the disoriented juvenile fish as they emerge from the impoundment. Weather affects the amount of food that is available to salmon in the ocean. Pollution and disease have also contributed to population declines.” Add to that list loss of habitat, overfishing, interaction with hatchery fish, disconnected floodplains, and reduction of stream flow in the summer, and an even more complicated picture emerges.
But arguably the worst contributor to California’s salmon population decline has been two multi-year droughts in the last decade. Chinook salmon follow a three-year cycle in which they are hatched in the rivers of California and Oregon and then return to the same waters as adults to spawn, but the coast’s droughts have taken their toll. With so little water in inland streams and rivers, the fish are less likely to complete the brutal migration back to their ancestral spawning places to lay their eggs. Low water levels also increase water temperatures to the point that eggs and fry cannot survive. Generally, salmon numbers can recharge after a single year of drought, but the effects of the prolonged dry spell show in the numbers: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that around 196,000 fish were expected to return to the Sacramento River in 2022. However, they only counted 60,000. In the Klamath River, 2022 brought the second lowest number of Chinook salmon returning since records began in 1997.

Noyo Harbor tribute to fishermen lost at sea. Photo by Ona Rynearson.

The life cycle of Pacific salmon exposes them to myriad threats as they hatch in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean as juveniles, grow in the wild for three or four years, then return to freshwater to spawn. Much has been learned over the decades about these challenges and how to mitigate them. But recently the story has taken a strange twist: A seemingly healthy ocean producing abundant anchovies is leading to a vitamin deficiency that kills young salmon.
Marine scientist and artist Dr. Robert Spies of Little River, like many people on the Mendocino Coast, well remembers strange doings in the ocean three years ago. “We actually saw here, in 2020 and ’21, just staggering quantities of anchovies for the entire year, offshore,” said Spies. “It brought in immense numbers of brown pelicans. We had thousands of brown pelicans camped out on the Mendocino Coast.”
Spies and co-host Tim Bray recently interviewed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries biologist Nate Mantua on their radio program, “The Ecology Hour,” on local station KZYX&Z. Mantua leads the Landscape Ecology Team at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz.
“Study of salmon in the ocean has not gotten the same depth of research and history, simply because it’s harder to access the fish and to see what’s going on,” said Mantua. “But there are ongoing studies piecing together this mystery of salmon life at sea.”
“One thing that was not on anyone’s radar screen,” he said, “was the emergence of a deficiency of thiamine [Vitamin B-1] in California’s Chinook salmon.” It took alert salmon personnel at a Central Valley hatchery to figure out why their smolt (newly hatched salmon) were sickening and dying in alarming numbers. Through a process of elimination, they determined that the smolt had a fatal thiamine deficiency.
The question was, why? One clue: Observers had monitored an exploding anchovy population off the California coast. It started down south, then each year expanded further north, until 2020 when the schools of anchovies arrived off Fort Bragg and attracted all the pelicans.
Upon examination, the anchovies were found to have high levels of thiaminase, an anti-nutrient enzyme that breaks down vitamin B-1. When Chinook salmon stuff themselves with anchovies, the enzyme destroys this essential vitamin in their bodies. While that may not have short-term consequences for the adult fish, the deficiency is passed onto their offspring, hence the dying smolt in the hatcheries. The phenomenon is called TDC: Thiamine Deficiency Complex.
“In the last few years, it’s been just astounding to go out on the ocean, anywhere from nearshore to the outer edge of the continental shelf, and seeing these really large aggregations of anchovies, humpback whales feeding in big groups, bunch-feeding on them. And then the salmon packed in around these anchovy schools. It’s really incredible to see this concentration of marine life and how productive this looks,” said Mantua. “But then to find out it’s not all good news, that you have this diet issue and vitamin problem that’s problematic for these fish.”
The abundance of anchovies has meant a corresponding reduction in the populations of other sea life that Chinook salmon normally consume, such as krill, squid, sardines, and juvenile rockfish. Predictably, examinations of stomach contents have shown the big fish are eating anchovies almost exclusively. “The anchovies have really taken over the coastal food web in a way that’s unusual,” said Mantua.
Back on land, the Chinook hatcheries are treating their eggs and smolt with a thiamine bath, which resolves their symptoms. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have even captured wild females in their streams, injected them with thiamine, and then returned them to their streams to spawn. They hope to determine whether this supplementation reduces the likelihood of TDC in their offspring
“This is similar to women taking prenatal vitamins when they are pregnant to make sure their babies get the important vitamins they need,” said Rachel Johnson, a research fishery biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and a leader of the research. “We are giving female salmon a nutritional boost to help produce healthy young fish.”
But it’s unclear whether these measures are sustainable in the long run and, of course, such measures are not possible at sea. The cause of the ascendance of anchovies has yet to be determined, and it’s doubly mysterious because the species was long thought to prefer cold ocean water, while this recent surge in anchovy populations has corresponded with the warmest ocean temperatures on record.
Why do anchovies carry this thiamine-destroying enzyme? It’s a subject of further research.

ABOVE: The traditional diet of salmon was diverse, and included krill, squid, sardines, and juvenile rockfish.
ABOVE: The diet today is almost exclusively made up of anchovies, which secrete thiaminase, an enzyme that robs fish of thiamine (Vitamin B1), which is necessary for every living organism on earth.

ABOVE: ‘We replaced two culverts on Gulch C that were total barriers to salmon and steelhead and reconnected 1.3 miles of upstream habitat. Adult Coho salmon were observed spawning in the stream the winter following the restoration,’ says Anna Halligan of the North Coast Coho Project.
Photo provided.
Caterpiller inside the culvert put in by Trout Unlimited spreads gravel.

While nobody can deny the mood of doom and gloom surrounding salmon scarcity along the entire West Coast, and while the decline of salmon populations has been a concern for many decades, the successes of multiple environmental organizations and federal and state agencies, like the Salmon Restoration Association (SRA), Trout Unlimited with its North Coast Coho Project, the Noyo Center for Marine Science, the California Conservation Corps, and others give us reason for hope…enough to lift our hearts a bit.
We found reason for hope like this when we started researching this story and discovered all the incredible work that’s being done in support of the species, and that kernel of hope was bolstered when we went to see Wild Life, a documentary shown during the just-finished Mendocino Film Festival (which delivered its usual requisite bucketloads of potent, inspiring, often astounding content, thank you very much). Wild Life is about the vision and Herculean conservation work of Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris, founders of The North Face outdoor clothing line and their nonprofit, Tompkins Conservation, to preserve millions of acres of wild space in Chile and Argentina, and to “rewild” Patagonia and the southern cone of South America by reintroducing native species like anteaters, condors, huemul (an endangered Andean deer), and others, that are rebalancing the natural ecosystem. The couple bought up vast tracts of breathtaking wilderness, turning the lands into (so far) seventeen national parks, and donated them back to the two countries’ governments to protect and oversee. The effectiveness of the Tompkins’ efforts, set in the context of their epic love story, was so moving that audience members left the theater with tears in their eyes, perhaps in anguish for the hugeness of the environment’s fragility in this moment and perhaps for the hugeness of the couple’s implausible ambitions and rock-solid accomplishments.

ABOVE: FlyLords Magazine image of salmon.

Although Kris Tompkins said in an interview at the beginning of the film, “On any scorecard, nature is losing,” the upshot of the film is that there is reason to be hopeful, reason not to give up, and reason to declare that it’s realistic to be optimistic. Strategic partnering with governments and deep-pocketed business cohorts—for instance, as they have done with Rolex and its groundbreaking Perpetual Planet Initiative—makes for much larger and more powerful successes. The husband/wife producers of Wild Life, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, focused on Kris’s shattering grief, which drove her to continue Doug’s work after the kayaking accident that caused his tragic death in 2015. Said Vasarhelyi, “We made this film for our kids. Climate change is the existential question of our children’s generation. And this is a story that says very clearly: put one foot in front of the other and just try, because trying matters.”
Trying matters and trying is a theme we can marvel at in their achievements and in the work of so many nonprofits and agencies fighting to protect and restore the environment. For any activist, the uphill battle is exhausting, but the putting of one foot in front of the other seems to be the order of the day, and that certainly applies to the plight of the salmon.

The salmon grilled at the upcoming Salmon BBQ has not been caught locally for more than a decade, but is sourced from areas where species other than Chinook are still plentiful. The fundraising efforts of the Salmon Restoration Association help the work of many nonprofits that concentrate on restoring salmon habitat and bringing back their populations, so the idea of eating salmon to bring back the salmon begins to make sense.

There’s a seeming incongruity in the idea of holding the World’s Largest Salmon BBQ in 2023: Is it not ironic that salmon will be on the menu, even though salmon fishing has been shut down for the entire season in California because there aren’t enough fish? The truth is that the salmon grilled at the upcoming barbecue has not been caught locally for more than a decade. The local fishery couldn’t provide the kind of volume the ever more popular event demanded, so the SRA began sourcing non-endangered wild-caught (never farmed) salmon from other areas. This year, according to SRA executive director Michael Miller, the fifteen hundred pounds of fish grilled at South Noyo Harbor will be coho imported from Alaska, where numbers for this species remain healthy. Alaskan Coho populations are “near or above target population levels,” according to NOAA. In 2021, commercial landings of Coho salmon in the U.S. totaled eighteen million pounds, 90 percent of it caught in Alaskan waters.
Overall, the statistics from Alaska are encouraging for the other three salmon species as well: Sockeye, Chum, and Pink. In fact, the last two summers in western Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the world’s biggest fishery for prized Sockeye (aka Red) salmon, have seen the biggest catches on record: 66 million sockeye in 2021, 73 million last year, with similar catches forecast for 2023. Careful management, good fishery practices, and positive environmental factors go part way to explaining this good news. But not all the way. Why record numbers of sockeye are returning to the rivers of Bristol Bay while runs of Chinook and Chum salmon in the nearby Yukon River system are at historic lows (a catastrophe for the Native people who have depended on these fish since time immemorial) is something investigators have yet to puzzle out. And it’s not just the Yukon—the King salmon fishery along the entire southeast Alaskan coast will also be closed this summer, just as it is down here—unless the federal court decision that triggered the closure is overturned.
Paradoxically and encouragingly, 2023 forecasts for most stocks of Chinook and sockeye returning to the immense Columbia River system posit more fish than in recent years, and runs near or above historical averages.

The restored culvert helps to open up formerly blocked access to salmon spawning areas.

By “putting one foot in front of the other,” the effectiveness of programs initiated by Trout Unlimited with its North Coast Coho Project and others, and supported in part by the Salmon Restoration Association, have been impressive. The organization’s many successful projects have been assisted by contributions from the Salmon BBQ, along with government grants and other funding, so the equation of eating salmon to save salmon begins to make sense.
A showpiece of salmonid conservation efforts is the project, now begun, to remove four obsolete hydropower dams along the Klamath River. With its headwaters in Oregon, the Klamath empties into the Pacific in the northwest corner of California and historically was the second biggest Chinook fishery in the state after the Sacramento River system. Of critical importance to the indigenous people of the region, this is also good news for Mendocino County, since the thousands of King salmon caught offshore and delivered to Noyo docks (in the good years) always included fish intercepted on their way back to both of those rivers. In the ocean, the Klamath and Sacramento stocks intermingle.
After decades of advocacy and work by a coalition of tribes, conservationists, anglers, and commercial fishermen, the effort is being hailed as “the largest river restoration effort in history,” and is being undertaken with the cooperation and assistance of multiple state and federal agencies. In other words, everyone is on board.
The removal of dams along the Klamath presents an unprecedented opportunity to find out what can happen when anadromous fish regain access to hundreds of miles of high-quality habitat. “For over a century, these dams have degraded water quality and blocked salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey from migrating upstream, completely extirpating these native fish from over 400 miles of spawning and rearing habitat in southern Oregon and northern California,” according to Trout Unlimited. The first dam will be dismantled this year and three more are slated for removal starting in 2024.
“Soon, at some moment in the near future, as the dust settles on the former dam sites and the demolition equipment is moved away, salmon will return to the Klamath River during their annual spawning migration. The water will be flowing freely through the former impoundments. For the first time in more than a century, the fish will find their reconnected path to the basin’s headwaters,” predicts Sam Davidson of Trout Unlimited.
Adds Anna Halligan, Project Director of the North Coast Coho Project for Trout Unlimited, “Although salmon populations in California are a fraction of what they were historically, we are seeing modest yet positive trends in the number of adult Coho salmon that are returning to North Coast streams, particularly in Mendocino County. This inspires us to increase the pace and scale of restoration.”

The Coho smolt with vertical bars and big eye–
once abundant.

Michael Miller, executive director of Salmon Restoration Association, is excited to invite everyone back for the fifty-second annual Fourth of July version of the World’s Largest Salmon BBQ. Over a hundred volunteers will show up to put out the picnic tables and do the heavy lifting needed for an event of this size. On the menu: imported Alaskan Coho salmon grilled by local luminaries, along with corn on the cob, garlic French bread locally baked by Fort Bragg Bakery, tossed green salad, and handmade ice cream from Cowlicks. Many of the ingredients are donated. Five bands will provide the soundtrack for this rock-, reggae-, alternative-, and blues-loving, community-building, salmon-supporting, people-watching feast. Yes, a certain amount of dancing will be inevitable. Agencies and nonprofits will be on hand too, to answer questions and fill in any blanks this story might have sparked. Miller says that he is always amazed by how selflessly people cooperate and “just make it all work, whatever challenges come up in logistics.”
Dear Salmon: We do love you and we’re showing up for you at the Salmon BBQ! REM