It’s a rare person who would look at a wicked stretch of whitewater rapids and think: “Man, that’d make for some killer snorkeling.”
But that’s exactly what’s attracts nearly a hundred people to the Salmon River in Northwestern California every year.
The Salmon River Fish Dive is organized by the Salmon River Restoration Council and the U.S. Forest Service. Volunteers and professional biologists spend the day snorkeling the entire length of the Salmon River and its tributaries — more than 80 miles of river in all. Their goal is to count every single Spring Chinook salmon and Steelhead adult fish.
In the world of biology, it’s rare to survey an entire population — it’s just a lot of work. But they do it here because it’s such an important and threatened run, with important implications for the entire Klamath Basin, including the upper watershed that originates in Oregon. And they’ve been doing it for 24 years, which makes this one of the longest running and most comprehensive fish surveys on the West Coast.
At the crack of dawn on a midsummer day, survey participants gathered at the Forks of Salmon Elementary School and divided into small teams to divvy up the watershed. Each 3- to 4-mile reach was ranked by difficulty. The most dangerous stretch was claimed, as it is every year, by a Salmon River lifer: Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council.
Harling’s team consisted of biologists Sophie Price and Allen Crockett and, for the first time, his 14-year-old son, Owen.
“Owen, I’m really excited: this is your first run on our home river,” said Harling, as he circled them up on the rocky shore at the top of their stretch. “French to Matthews is one of the most dangerous reaches on the river."
“And beautiful,” added Price.
“And beautiful,” Harling echoes. “Deep pools, big waterfalls.”
That is, beautiful pools, waterfalls and rapids that the team would have to navigate through steep mountain valleys with no cell service and only occasional road access, meaning they had to carry everything they’d need in their packs, and should someone get hurt, it was going to be a hard hike out.
But that didn’t stop Harling from diving goggles-first into the first winding rapid, as his teammates climbed over boulders alongside, before jumping in to join him in the pool below.
Harling explained the general process of the survey: “We have to walk around the rapids. Sometimes you can float through, and it’s kind of a judgment call if you know whether it’s safe or not. And one person will flush out the bubble curtain in case fish are hanging up in the bubbles, and then we go through the hole.”
“You definitely get a little banged up going down rapids, if you’re going down the exciting ones,” Price said. “My personal strategy is wearing a really thick wetsuit, and then I always have my hands out in front a my face, because you often dive straight into a bubble curtain, and then you also can’t see anything, so it’s extra exciting.”
In bountiful years, they compare counts at the bottom of each pool. But this year, with the exception of one pod of five spring chinook, the fish were proving elusive, forcing the divers to search under ledges and boulders in the hopes of finding single fish seeking refuge. By late afternoon, their tally was only 14 adult springers and eight steelhead.
For Harling, the salmon are much more than just numbers: they’re practically family. He was born just up the river’s banks in an old mining cabin.
“When I was a kid growing up on the Salmon River, fishing for spring chinook salmon was a way a life — pretty much every hole had fish in it,” he said. “But in the mid-’80s, that changed, and all of a sudden the salmon were dying from a thousand cuts: from the legacy of mining, from the legacy of logging, and then finally from the droughts.”
While populations vary from year to year, biologists have documented that the spring runs here have generally fallen from thousands of fish to hundreds — a general downward trend shared by many West Coast salmon runs.
“Historically, spring salmon were the largest run and contributed the greatest biomass: feeding people, feeding animals, and feeding and providing the foundation of many of our food webs in the river systems,” said Frank Lake, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station. “The loss of that literally means a near collapse of all those other things that depend upon them.”
Local tribes and organizations have been pushing for the spring chinook to be listed as endangered for years — to no avail. The government has argued the springers were no different from the fall chinook, which have bigger remaining runs. But recent genetic research has proven that the spring chinook are indeed their own species, and local groups, such as the Karuk Tribe and the Salmon River Restoration Council, have resubmitted a petition for an endangered listing.
The population’s decline has consequences that reach far beyond the local ecosystem, too. The Salmon River flows into the Klamath River, which has its headwaters in Oregon, and this population is one of the last wild runs left in the entire Klamath Basin, where dams are slated to be removed beginning in 2020.
“The importance of spring salmon here is that when the dams are removed on the Upper Klamath, it has the potential to be that genetic security that comes back into the Klamath Basin system,” Lake said.
But that depends on whether those salmon can be conserved.
The shadows were growing long by the time Harling and his team finished their reach.
Any hope that other teams might’ve fared better evaporated as they returned to the elementary school. The final count came in at 168 spring chinook adults and 164 steelhead adults in all of the Salmon River watershed, making it the third-lowest year on record.
Harling holds out hope that removing the Klamath River dams, other conservation measures such as restoring fire to the land, and the protections that would come with an endangered species listing could help the spring chinook rebound. Because the idea of a Salmon River without salmon — it’s just unimaginable.
“It makes me feel sick in my stomach,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be alive if my kid couldn’t fish in the salmon river — wouldn’t be able to see salmon. It’s part of who we are. We got to keep the faith, because what else is there.”