The Current Magazine Winter 2016/17 - Page 6


Historically, the Eel was the third largest salmon and steelhead producing river in California (exceeded only by the Sacramento and Klamath rivers). By extrapolating from cannery records from the late 1800s, fishery biologists estimate that in good spawning years over one million adult salmon and steelhead entered the Eel (comprised of approximately 800,000 Chinook salmon, 100,000 Coho salmon, and 150,000 steelhead). It's not surprising that the native people of the area, the Wiyot, used a word in their language that means "plenty" or "abundance" in naming the Eel, and also derived their tribal name from that same word. By the early 1920s, the Eel had a national reputation for offering some of the best freshwater fishing in the country. In the 1930s, The Eel captured 1st through 5th place prizes in the annual Field and Stream big fish contest. In the 1950s, the allure of the Eel for fisherman was embodied by Bill Schaadt, considered by many of the time to be the greatest steelhead fisherman of the north coast, who one time flipped his car on an Eel River gravel bar in his mad rush to get down to the schools of giant fish.

But, the glory days quickly came to end. The list of human activities that altered the Eel and devastated the anadramous fish populations reads like a recipe for destroying a river and its fish: overfishing during the peak years of cannery operations from the 1880s to the 1920s; massive logging, especially in the boom years after World War II, which set the stage for widespread erosion that filled the river with tons of sediment during the epic floods of 1955 and 1964; water diversions for farming and ranching, and more recently for rapidly expanding marijuana cultivation; the introduction of invasive species such as the Sacramento pikeminnow, which feeds on juvenile salmon and steelhead; the wholesale transformation of the Eel River delta and estuary into dairy and ranch lands; and, the building of dams that have altered flows and blocked access to spawning and rearing habitat in the upper watershed. It is no surprise that by the 1980s all runs of salmon and steelhead in the Eel were listed as threatened.

A Fabled Past