Friday, August 24, 2007

Coho Confab and Steelhead Pilgrimage

"Come up to the north coast sometime and we'll catch a steelhead." This offer was made at a fisheries conference a couple of years ago when I mentioned that I had spent 15 years on steelhead restoration, but never had a chance to fish for them, as they are now endangered in Southern California.

When I learned of the "Coho Confab" to be held on the Mattole watershed in Humboldt County on Aug 17-19, the lure of steelhead was in the back of my mind. So last weekend I made the long drive up north to attend the conference, with a couple of days on the tail end reserved for fishing.

In many respects, the Mattole is where it all began. Much has been written about the struggle of the Headwaters Forest and plight of the salmon in this watershed. This is where Julia Butterfly made global headlines with her epic tree sit. And where 30 years of restoration has made marginal gains in an ecosystem fatally damaged by clear-cut logging. It was a place I had heard so much about, and this was an opportunity to learn from those who had been doing the work for half their lives.

This photo shows local leaders describing the history and future of restoration efforts in the Mattole. The poster shows the extent of logging, where over 90% of the watershed has been cut. (see )

The loss of the old growth resulted in severe soil erosion throughout the 300 sq mile watershed, which in turn led to dramatic changes in the river and tributary creeks. Fine silt and sand has filled in the pools which once produced an endless bounty of Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead. Cold water that once flowed out of the deep shade of the redwood forest has diminished, leaving just a warm trickle.

In 1978, residents within the Mattole River basin began proactive restoration efforts aimed at increasing salmon numbers. It quickly became apparent, however, that salmon do not live just in streams, they live in watersheds. In order to save the native salmon runs, residents began to consider how to care for the whole system. Early work included salmon rescue and evolved into reforestation. This led to the formation of the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group (MWSSG) in 1980. Slowly an industry was formed around the restoration activities, and money was raised to plant trees, raise salmon, and educate the community.

So it was appropriate that the Coho Confab returned to the origins of the restoration movement. The Coho Confab is a symposium to explore watershed restoration, learn restoration techniques to recover coho salmon populations, and to network with other fish-centric people. According to conference sponsor Salmonid Restoration Federation, 'To confabulate literally means to informally chat or to fabricate to compensate for gaps in ones memory.'

Over the weekend, a series of field tours were conducted with visits to restoration sites and hands-on workshops to fast-track the learning experience. During one such tour we visited this example of an innovative bank stabilization project, quite different from the concrete structures that we live with in SoCal. Look closely and you can see that each rock is cabled to the next using a drill and epoxy. Also notice the shade, and the vegetation emerging between the rocks. This structure has endured flows over 40,000 cfs, equivalent to a large flood on the Ventura River.

One of the benefits of this project is the deep scour pool formed under the log. Sedimentation has made deep pools like this rare in the lower river. Projects that help protect the streambank, as well as create deep pools and riparian cover, are seen as one strategy to increase rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids.

We returned to this same site in the afternoon for the "Tails of a Hidden World" workshop. Donning our wetuits and snorkling gear, we swam with an estimated 1,000 steelhead smolt, with a few chinook smolt in the mix.

It is important to note that the Mattole Restoration Council recognized early on that restoring a watershed meant much more than instream structures and salmon. Building a community around the restoration ethic has been central to the effort. And building community was all about gathering to share experiences and have fun.

On Saturday night, Confab participants were treated to this aspect of the Mattole culture. The "Local Talent Cabaret" included singers and poetry and story telling. The local talent also demonstrated how comedy can be used to convey a message. This skit pitted a small salmon in a fishbowl of water against a thirsty marijuana plant. In the end the plant's insatiable thirst won, as she drank the fishbowl dry. (Marijuana cultivation has been identified as a critical issue for instream habitat, as growers in the headwaters often pump a creek dry.)

Since its inception, the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) has been at the forefront of community based watershed restoration. The activities of the MRC have been featured in numerous articles, books, and videos on ecological restoration, both locally and internationally. The story of the Mattole restoration movement is known as the first community-based restoration effort in the state of California. Much more may be found at

... to be continued