What happened to the Eel River? “It’s not worth even going there anymore, all the fish are gone.” This was a common refrain among fly fishers for many years. Once one of the greatest salmon and steelhead rivers in California, the Eel experienced an epic collapse. It was a death by a thousand cuts.
If you have seen the movie Rivers of a Lost Coast, you know the legendary stories of the wildly abundant runs of salmon and steelhead up until the late ’60s, and the legendary fishermen and angling culture that surrounded those fish. It was a mecca of early fly-fishing culture on the West Coast. In the early ’70s the runs began a precipitous decline, and by the ’90s, all three species of salmon and steelhead on the North Coast were listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened or endangered. The fish were nearly gone, and so were the dollars they had brought into the local economy.
The Eel River is one of the largest watersheds in California. The main stem flows almost 200 miles, dissecting a most unusual path from south to north, paralleling the coast for much of its journey. The South Fork, main stem, North Fork, Van Duzen River, and tributaries drain a watershed of more than 3,600 square miles in five counties.
The Eel drains a swath of geologically unstable mountains perched along the northern fault line between Clear Lake and the Cascades. The terrain varies from semiarid eastern escarpments to heavily forested and lush near the coast. The Eel has been slowly shaping and carving away these sandy and crumbly hills for hundreds of thousands of years.
Luckily this unstable geology has a formidable ally . . . redwoods.
Throughout the watershed, old-growth Pacific giant redwoods have helped shape the course of the river. They stabilize the banks of the river as well as the eroding hillsides. The tall canopy provides shade and thermal refuge for tributaries, and the falling duff guards the soil during flashy runoff events. These trees are so big that when they fall, a single log has the ability to change the entire course of the river. If a large redwood topples or becomes dislodged, it has the ability to keep growing, and can turn into a new section of bank and eventually even a new grove. The river and the trees are engaged in a never-ending game of give and take, but ultimately they rely on each other and support myriad flora, fauna, and other organisms that call the redwood forest home. They have created their own ecosystem that even affects the coastal weather. Modern History
The Eel River was historically the heart of the Six Rivers Nation, home of the Wiyot people. The river was originally called Wiyot, a word meaning “abundance” in their native tongue. The Wiyot people were sustained by runs of salmon and Pacific lamprey, which they harvested from the river. They also relied on the forest ecosystem adjacent to the rivers, and used the entire watershed as their territory.
In the mid-1800s, gold miners and fur trappers began making overland expeditions into Northern California. They returned to San Francisco with stories of big rivers, big trees, and big salmon. These early explorers mistook the Pacific lamprey as some sort of eel, leading to the modern name of the river.
By the early 19th century, commercial fishing was booming around the mouth of the river. According to the records of local canneries, more than 1 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Eel annually. Many of these fish were consumed by the droves of men who came to work in this area. First there were fur trappers in search of otters, beavers, mink, and other valuable pelts. Then, loggers started chewing away at the old-growth forest.
The horse trails turned into roads, the roads turned into highways, and eventually the Trans Pacific Railroad followed the main stem of the Eel for more than 100 miles. Due to the unstable geology of the area, this was one of the hardest stretches of track to maintain on the entire line. To keep the trains running, a maintenance car had to precede every train to work on the tracks before each run.
The 20th century saw a huge boom across California in dam engineering, and not even the remote Eel River was safe from this driving force of American ingenuity. In 1900, work began on the Potter Valley Project, which now consists of two dams and a tunnel, which pipes Eel River water through a mountain and off into the Potter Valley and down into the Russian River drainage.
Following World War II, resource extraction boomed in the Eel River drainage. The demand for timber in America skyrocketed. There were new roads being cut and whole hillsides were clear-cut. Tractor logging took over. Many of the logs were sent to the mills using the river, erasing the natural meanders, and turning the river into a channelized log chute. Today only 3 percent of the majestic old-growth coastal redwood trees remain in California, and roughly a third of them are along the banks of the Eel River.
The civilized world was expanding, but nature paid the bill. Much of the fertile land of the lower river valley and its estuary were levied to become pasture for cows. Logging turned to clear-cutting. Gravel mining operations began harvesting the floodplain. By the 1950s, the ecological functionality of the ecosystem was already beginning to unravel, and fish numbers began to decline.
A large flood in 1955 should have served as a warning, but resource extraction only intensified to make up for the timber lost in the flood. In 1964, the flood of the century hit, and because of the poor state of the watershed, the sediment transfer was unprecedented. Sections of river that were previously 20 feet deep became 4 feet deep. The structure and sediment stratification of the lower river were permanently altered.
In the ’50s and ’60s the Eel was discovered by anglers coming up from the Bay Area to chase steelhead and salmon. It first started with salmon fishing to harvest meat, but advancements in gear and technology began to make it possible to target winter runs of salmon and steelhead with fly-fishing tackle. The pursuit of steelhead began to morph into recreation and a form of art. A popular fishery and fishing culture emerged that contributed greatly to the local economy.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, a series of low-water years and increased demand on the water supply contributed to increased water temperatures in the summer.
After being planted in Lake Pillsbury, the invasive Sacramento pikeminnow was able to take hold in the lower forks of the Eel. These fish prey heavily on the salmon, steelhead, and lamprey fry furthering their declines.
By the 1990s, the Eel was all but forgotten as a fishery. A hatchery program on the lower river attempted to recover salmon and steelhead stocks for commercial and recreational fishing, but the facility got destroyed by another devastating flood, and the program failed.
In 1996 the medical marijuana act passed, and in the following two decades there was a boom in marijuana cultivation in the Eel watershed. Many illegal and unregulated water diversions for marijuana irrigation come in the months when the river is already the lowest and warmest. Diminished flows and increased temperatures make it even harder for salmon and steelhead smolts to survive. By the early 2000s, the commercial fishery for salmon at the mouth of the Eel was closed. Coho salmon were listed as endangered, and steelhead were federally listed as threatened. Regulations were enacted calling for catch-and-release sport angling only in the lower river, and the upper watershed was closed to any type of fishing all year. The mighty Eel was down but not out.
The Eel serves as one of the best examples of the old adage, “time heals all wounds.” If you leave it alone and give it time, Nature will heal itself. In 2010, scientists and citizens noticed the salmon were coming back. The resilience of these fish served as a beacon of hope for fisheries enthusiasts, and showed that the habitat and potential were still there.
Wide-scale efforts are now underway to help recover this once great fishery, and address the ecological function of the entire river ecosystem.
In 2012 California Trout (caltrout.org) created the Eel River Forum to address issues concerning the entire watershed. The Eel River Forum is a diverse group of 22 stakeholders including state and federal agencies, logging companies, hydro-power companies, tribes, commercial fisherman, ranchers, private landowners, environmental nonprofits, and other interested user groups, which in 2016 produced the Eel River Action Plan to identify priorities in advancing the Eel River recovery.
In the past decade, more protective regulations have been enacted throughout the watershed. Reformed logging practices have led to less siltation. Habitat enhancement and restoration projects have greatly improved tributary spawning and rearing habitats. Controlled releases from the Potter Valley Project have helped improve summer conditions for migrating smolts in the main stem. More stringent fishing regulations greatly reduced the mortality of wild fish during sport-fishing season.
These efforts are paying off and in 2010, 2011, and 2012 there were significantly higher returns of wild fish. The only hard numbers come from the Van Arsdale Reservoir fish ladder, which is high in the watershed. California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDF&W) counted a record 3,471 adult Chinook in 2012.
Visual surveys are also conducted by CDF&W and the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP) to help create population estimates each year. Pat Higgins from ERRP estimates there have been as many as 50,000 adult Chinook returning into the Eel in recent years— the most since the 1950s. While wild salmon and steelhead are declining on just about every other river on the West Coast, the Eel is trending up.
CalTrout is confident that the Eel has the greatest potential in the state for recovery of wild fish stocks, making it a high priority among North Coast programs. The organization cannot control ocean conditions or the effects of climate change, but can positively affect instream conditions for salmon and steelhead using an estuary-to-headwaters approach to restoring the watershed.
In the estuary, CalTrout has partnered with the Wild Lands Conservancy, the Coastal Conservancy, and local ranchers to restore hundreds of acres of wetland marsh habitat that is critical rearing habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other native fish. Fattening juvenile fish in the protective environment of the estuary gives them the best chance of survival in the ocean.
Along the main stem of the Eel, CalTrout has identified dozens of migration barriers created by the decommissioned railroad line, and prioritized efforts to remove these barriers.
In 2014, the 12-mile-long Bridge Creek drainage was reconnected to the main stem Eel for the first time in more than 100 years. Work is in progress to restore passage to a 25-mile-long historic spawning tributary called Woodman Creek.
On the South Fork of the Eel, CalTrout is using cutting-edge science to help construct a flow management plan designed to balance the needs of legitimate water users and also address the stresses of a burgeoning marijuana industry. CalTrout successfully lobbied for Prop 64, which provides regulatory oversight of the marijuana industry, and allocates tax revenues from the legal sale of marijuana to restore watersheds that have suffered from this type of agriculture.
Near the headwaters of the Eel, CalTrout is participating in the relicensing process for the Potter Valley Project by advocating for better flows for fish below the dams and passage into the upper watershed for migrating salmon and steelhead.
CalTrout has also helped fund a habitat study with Humboldt State University to quantify the amount of usable habitat that lies above Lake Pillsbury. The study identified hundred of miles of coldwater habitat that has been unavailable to anadromous fish for more than 100 years. This information will help guide a science-based argument for fish passage or removal of the dam at Lake Pillsbury if fish passage isn’t possible.
Keeping the Eel wild and on a trajectory toward recovery is going to take more than just work by CalTrout. It’s going to take statewide investment in habitat restoration and protection, and a shift in public perception on ecological benefits of a healthy waterway. Abundant wild fish equal healthy rivers, and healthy rivers equal a better California.
Aldo Leopoldo wrote: “A land ethic reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”
In a California faced with climate change, a growing population, sprawling urbanization, and increased demand on natural resources, we need to make a conscious effort to preserve wildness for future generations. California’s Eel River is on the front lines of this imperative, and right now it’s up to us to decide what its future will hold.
Michael Wier is a Patagonia ambassador, filmmaker (burlproductions.com), and outreach coordinator for CalTrout. His previous story in Fly Fisherman was “American Dream: Giant browns and rainbows on the forks of the upper American River.” That story is online at flyfisherman.com/american.