chinook salmon

A spring chinook salmon found in 2011 on the South Fork Trinity River.

The Yurok Tribe and the Watershed Research and Training Center, in partnership with Columbia Helicopters and others, is implementing a history-making fish habitat restoration project on the South Fork Trinity River, where spring chinook salmon stocks are on the cusp of collapse.

The spring salmon population on this major Klamath River tributary is currently less than 1 percent of its former size, a consequence of severely impaired ecological conditions in the watershed.

The salmon of the South Fork Trinity and the Klamath as a whole are in serious trouble, said Richard Nelson, director of the Yurok Tribe’s Watershed Restoration Program, Yurok Tribal member and subsistence salmon fisher. “Nue-mee ney-puy (spring chinook salmon) have sustained the Yurok people since time immemorial and if we don’t do something now, we are certain that these culturally important fish will cease to exist in the very near future.”

The South Fork Trinity Heli-Wood Loading Project will accomplish several objectives, ranging from improving water quality to creating new habitat for juvenile and adult salmon. Over four days, a Columbia Helicopter team will work with Yurok fisheries biologists and engineers to place approximately 300 whole trees in predetermined locations within a five-mile stretch of the river. The logs, up to 150-feet in length, will be positioned individually and in configurations, which mirror the big wood features found in healthy river systems. This proven biomimicry technique will facilitate the formation of wetlands, new side channels as well as many additional fish friendly features currently absent from the South Fork.

The South Fork Trinity River, the longest undammed river remaining in California, is one of the four tributaries that produce the majority of the salmon on the Klamath River. Prior to just 1964, more than 12,000, spring Chinooks used to return to the South Fork each year. Last year, only 12 of these fish made the migration back to the federally designated Wild and Scenic River. The South Fork’s federally listed Coho and fall chinook salmon are also struggling.

“In a half century, humankind has nearly wiped out these crucial fish runs,” Nelson said. “This is completely unacceptable. While we did not create this problem, we could not sit idle while these fish hover on the brink of extinction.”

Central to this project is the use of the aircraft to precisely place whole trees, weighing up to 25,000 pounds, at strategic sites throughout this remote stretch of the South Fork Trinity River, located near Hyampom.

“Establishing these complex structures in the system, with no artificial anchoring, will emulate the natural ebb and flow of wood into the river, providing diverse and constantly evolving habitat for fish and wildlife,” said Joshua Smith, the Watershed and Fisheries Program director for the Watershed Center.

Large wood features were common in the South Fork until in 1964, when a catastrophic, 100-year flood event washed out many these salmon sustaining structures. During the 1950s and 1960s, most of forests surrounding the South Fork were clear cut, which drastically reduced the potential for natural wood recruitment and made it possible for heavy rains to send giant loads of sediment into the watershed. The river’s previously numerous, cold pools, a critical habitat type for both adult and juvenile salmon, are filled in with silt. Former salmon spawning grounds are also blanketed in the fine material.

Depending on their placement, these wood formations, whether constructed by nature or fish biologists, can promote numerous positive, in-river responses, including enhanced water quality, the creation of deep water habitat and the dispersal of salmon-suffocating sediments from the river bed on to the bank, where the fertile substrate will support the development of much-needed, wetlands. The log configurations also create places for juvenile fish to take shelter from predators and supply a source of food for the colonies of insects that baby salmon subsist on during the most vulnerable part of the fish’s lifecycle.

The absence of these critical, wood-based components is significantly restricting salmon production on the South Fork. The river no longer has the diversity of features that salmon need to thrive. The intent of the South Fork Trinity Heli-Wood Project is to begin the lengthy process of reinstalling these fundamental elements within the once prime salmon spawning stream.

The South Fork Trinity is a significant distance from the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral territory. After seeing that there was not a coordinated effort to rehabilitate this critical salmon spawning stream, the Tribe reached out to the Watershed Center, the U.S. Forest Service and multiple local land owners to form a formal partnership for the purpose of initiating this project.

“We are very excited about this new collaboration with the Watershed Center, the Forest Service and local landowners,” concluded Yurok Watershed Program Director Nelson.

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