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Coho Salmon’s Survival in California an Upstream Swim

Words by Leon Kaye

The fishing industry is worth $1.5 billion in California, but it has been long under threat for a bevy of reasons. The rapid post-war development throughout the Golden State was one massive factor in starting the rapid decline in the size of California’s fisheries. The state’s ongoing drought crisis is another reason why many of this once ubiquitous species of fish are endangered and are close to disappearing altogether.

Not that the state of California has turned a blind eye to the problem. True, the fishing sector is a tiny one when the state’s entire economy is measured, but it is one important to many rural communities as both commercial and recreational fishing is the lifeline for many small towns and remote areas. To that end, California has invested at least a quarter of a billion dollars in habitat restoration over the past decade in attempting to revive fish species including steelhead trout and varieties of salmon.

But the latest drought still poses a threat to California’s fish. One species, the Coho salmon, was once a large part of the state’s salmon industry. But starting in the 1970s, their numbers rapidly dwindled, and only one percent of its historic population exists. While conservationists have done an admirable job trying to revive the Coho, they are on the losing end of this fight. In northern California, the growth of marijuana farms is siphoning off water that would have otherwise sufficed for salmon habitat.

If species such as the Coho have even a fighting chance of surviving in California, then the efforts of companies such as the Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) are important.

MRC manages about 350 square miles (907 km2) of forestland in “treehugger” country, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. These lands are slathered in coastal redwoods and Douglas Firs. Its sister company, Humboldt Redwood Company (HRC), manages about the same amount of land farther north, in uber-treehugger country. Both companies have promised to be better stewards of these forests than the lands’ previous owners, which had scored permits for clearcutting some of its acreage years earlier. MRC and HRC have promised transparency, more selective cutting and adopting measures that are more ecological in order to produce long term sustainable timber supplies.

One program involved land surround Greenwood Creek in Mendocino County, one of the many watersheds that falls on MRC’s land. In the late nineteenth country, a dam was built at the creek’s mouth. Industrial logging through the twentieth century further damaged the local ecosystem, and an area once home to schools of Coho salmon had run become bereft of the species.

The biggest problem was that the creek and streams feeding into the waterway had become ridden with sentiment. To that end, MRC partnered with various state agencies and other organizations to reduce the amount of sediment in over 225,000 acres, which the company says resulted in 17,000 cubic yards (13,000 cubic meters) of sediment diverted from Greenwood Creek.

As a result, Coho salmon have returned to the area. The local press has reported sightings of 60 to 70 young Coho salmon have returned to streams from which they had been absent for 50 years. Meanwhile the Coho population in Mendocino County has almost quadrupled between 2010 and 2013, when latest figures are available. The Coho are not out of the woods yet—but they are returning to these woods in Northern California, and are offering hope that the California fishing industry can not only survive, but thrive in the long run.

Image credit: Fishwatch.gov

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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