Tom's Take: The Majestic King Salmon of the Sacramento River
● By Tom Mailey
Illustrated by David Norby © Style Media Group
Beneath a dusty autumn sun, the Sacramento River flows. And beneath the whorls and ripples of its impenetrable green water, the great fish return.
They’re back, invisible, save for the occasional splash on the surface or chaotic rip on a hopeful fisherman’s rod. Otherwise, they lurk beneath the surface like restless subconscious thoughts.
The Sacramento River watershed is home to the second largest run of returning fall king salmon in the lower 48. Only the Columbia has more. This year, there will be an estimated 700,000 returning after three to four years at sea, in waters as distant as Alaska. Yep—it’s possible that the “Alaska-caught” salmon you bought for $30 a pound actually came from the Sacramento River or one of its tributaries. But don’t feel bad for not knowing—they’ve never been very good about sending postcards. As of 2013, the economic value of sport and commercial salmon fishing in California alone added up to $182 million. I’m pretty sure at least a tenth of that was from me, buying gear to try to catch them.
They’ve been coming back to the valley for a millennium, navigating their way along the coast with that miraculous ability they have to locate the waters of their birth without so much as Siri to give an address to. And let’s not forget they’re doing this entirely underwater. At least birds have the benefit of seeing where they are. It’s utterly impossible for us to relate to—I get disoriented if I close my eyes in the shower. Not to mention that from the moment they hatch, they’ve been dodging more obstacles than a contestant on American Ninja Warrior—the jaws of predators, the poisons of pollution, fishing nets, lures (some of those, mine). I am in awe of their ability to survive.
But the past few years have been among their toughest tests yet—returning to a watershed left low and warm by record drought. Meanwhile, the water that is left is being fought over like the last beer in a frat house fridge. Sure, as long as there are hatcheries like Nimbus on the American River (which of course is a tributary of the Sacramento and a great place to actually see these wondrous creatures), the salmon have a chance. But studies have shown hatchery salmon don’t have nearly the survival instinct—the street smarts, if you will—of wild salmon. Born into tough neighborhoods of moving water and river gravel, wild fingerlings are just warier. As adults, they’re better at surviving. So the more wild salmon there are, the healthier the population will be. But wild salmon feel the impact of drought the most. They need cool water. Without it, many of the eggs will die without even hatching. But as our reservoirs draw down further and further, the task of maintaining cooler river water becomes tougher and tougher.
I don’t have an answer to California’s water future or know if there even is one that works for everyone and everything. In the short-term, I hope this winter El Niño hits us like a fire hose. But in the long-term, I’m at a loss. I do know I am going to root for the salmon, and not just because I fish for them. Even if I don’t catch one (which is often), I love just knowing they’re out there. There’s something about them that’s as majestic as any redwood grove, as rugged as the Big Sur coastline, as timeless as our golden hills. It would be a shame to reach a day when their splashes are heard no more.