The Chinook salmon run that passes through San Francisco Bay and up into tributaries is in a sorry state.
Less than a decade ago, more than 800,000 Chinooks returned to the Bay each fall and headed upstream to stream to spawn. In 2009, the fall run of Sacramento Chinook plummeted to about 39,000. For the first time in three years, we've had salmon fishing in California this summer, but it's nothing to write home about.
There are many factors involved in the decline of the Sacramento Chinook salmon, including changing ocean currents, drought, water diversions in the Sacramento Delta and the appearance of huge swarms of a the predatory Humboldt squid that normally hang out a lot farther south.
But clearly the loss of suitable habitat for natural sawing is a major reason why what was once the largest Chinook salmon run on the Pacific Coast has nearly become extinct.
Federal and state agencies are spending a bundle of money on research to determine why the Sacramento salmon run has declined so much and what to do about it. Meanwhile, one very practical solution to the California salmon disaster can be found in Petaluma, Calif., at Casa Grande High School. Let the kids save some fish.
Tom Furrer was born and raised in Petaluma, spending a lot of time roaming the area around Adobe Creek, which supported a steelhead run. He went off to college, earned a biology teaching credential and came back in 1981 as a biology teacher at Casa Grande High School, which is on the SE side of Petaluma, not too far from the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park.
During his time away, Adobe Creek had changed from a living ecosystem to a dry, dumping ground for trash that was declared "dead" and on the verge of being covered over to build homes on.
In 1983, Furrer took his students on a field trip to Adobe Creek. He told them what it was like in the old days. The students responded by volunteering to clean up and save the creek. They started by removing more than 25 tons of trash.
A good start, but that still did not solve the water supply problem as a diversion dam was restricting the flow. The students tried to lobby for the dam being taken down, but in 1987 officials said "no." They said that they needed the water for an "Emergency Water Reserve" for the sewage treatment plant to insure it had enough water in summer months.
The club's response was to set a goal of raising $6,000 to convert an abandoned campus green house into a student-run fish hatchery. Meanwhile, Furrer spent a summer in Alaska learning about fish hatcheries. They got started in the fall but the old greenhouse proved unable to meet the earthquake codes, and so they had to start building from scratch.
Meanwhile, California Department of Fish and Game offered to chip in $50,000 if the students would reduce the scope of their project. "No way," was the response from the kids, who said that they would raise Chinook salmon as well as steelhead. In time, DFG gave in and almost doubled their contribution.
The community then stepped in, offering contributions of materials, construction services and manpower as well as dollars. While fund-raising was going on, the students planted thousands of trees along the banks of Adobe Creek. In six years, the United Anglers of Casa Grande raised more than $510,000 through car washes, cake sales, raffles, lawn mowing, and fund-raising dinners.
George Lucas has set a couple movies in Petaluma, so maybe "The Force" was with the kids. While all this was going on, a couple students discovered an earthquake fault line ran right under the Lawler Reservoir. The city eventually voted to abandon the dam system when state authorities demanded they reinforce the reservoir or abandon it. In October of 1992 Adobe Creek flowed freely for the first time in over 80 years.
On April 25, 1993, the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School opened the doors of its state-of-the-art, on-campus fish hatchery -- one of three nationally with a federal permit -- to raise endangered fall run Chinook salmon from the Sacramento River.
A banner held by those involved read: "Together we stand. Together we dream. Together we will change the world."
Since then United Anglers of Casa Grande have raised and released more than 300,000 Chinook salmon. Since 1985 the population of returning steelhead in Adobe Creek has gone from 0 to 80. The entire seven miles of Adobe Creek have been restored.
A state of the art fish hatchery has been established on the Casa Grande High School campus. And, the program is touching the entire community. A Junior United Angler program began in 2003 and targets the elementary level. Currently, there are three different schools involved in this program, with up to seven different classes involved in a school year ranging from third- to fifth-grade students.
The Junior program is designed to enable high school students to teach the younger generation about what they are doing in the community. They raise the money for their own Junior United Angler T-shirt and bus costs for field trips through cupcake sales.
The Juniors link into the "Steelhead in the Classroom" program that allows the students to raise fish in their classrooms. The ultimate goal is to have older kids teaching the younger kids to make a difference. At the end of the year, the high school and junior students release some of the fish together. In 2009 two students become United Anglers who were former Junior United Anglers.
In addition to raising fish and educating the Juniors program, the high school kids provide tours so the public can see how they built their dream. In the hatchery, younger children have observation windows at their level so they can see the students at work.
An interesting irony is that the streambed plantings in Abode Creek have done so well that this year the students actually had to clear some brush to help salmon and steelhead get upstream to spawn. This is real wildlife management in action.
Do your kids complain about what classes they want to take and why? Are they bored? Do they really want to go school? There is intense competition to join the United Anglers elective class. To qualify, applicants must ace a written test and demonstrate an abundant concern for the environment.
The United Anglers' of Casa Grande High School currently has about 20 students per year in the program. The annual cost to run the program is about $50,000 a year, which is supported by the annual Pasta Feed, now the largest fund-raiser in Petaluma.
The program is a pure shot of relevancy into education, but its benefits go much further. A number of students who have graduated from the program have gone on to careers in conservation-related work, including one woman who was an initial member and now runs the Feather River Hatchery, the largest in California.
Furrer is off for the summer, but I spoke with Dan Hubacker, a former student, who went to college, got a teaching degree, came back and has been a teacher at Casa Grande High for 11 years.
"The students average gathering between 20,000 and 40,000 Fall Run Chinook Salmon eggs a year," Hubacker said. "The eggs are collected from either returning adult Fall Run Chinook Salmon in the Petaluma watershed, or they're provided by Feather River Fish Hatchery out of Orville, which is managed by one of the United Anglers Alumni who we work closely with during the seven months out of the year when salmon are in the building."
"The number of returning adult steelhead trout is difficult to determine because of their ability to get in and out of Adobe Creek with no disruptions. This last year there were numerous occasions where students would be walking the creek and come back reporting seeing this illusive species. There are enough steelhead returning to spawn now that we do not have to artificially spawn them.
"We have had a exciting moments in the last few years when we have had a large group of adult Chinook Salmon come up Adobe Creek. This species is usually found in the main branches of the Petaluma River. On two separate occasions a Chum Salmon has been captured by the students."
These kids are not just running a hatchery, according to Hubacker, they are now actually doing research.
"We are currently in our second year of tagging our Chinook Salmon with a Coded Wire Tag. This program is allowing our students to work side by side with professionals in this field. Students this last year tagged 18,877 Chinook salmon fingerlings -- the beginning of a long-term study looking at the fish we are releasing each year," he said. "These coded wire tags are placed into the cartilage in the snout of the fish and have a corresponding code with our site. The fish's adipose fin is removed to identify those that are tags with the hopes that if they get caught when returning the commercial fisherman or angler will notify DFG so we can get some accurate stats of what is happening to our fish."
A number of schools have visited Casa Grande High and have been inspired by what they have seen, but none have yet built anything on the scale and complexity of the United Anglers hatchery program.
However, Hubacker says that recently the Casa Grande program is included in textbooks in Japan, and they are in contact with a teacher in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who seeks to create a similar program. This last year a Japanese film crew came and made a short film about U.A. Casa Grande to take back to Japan.
If you are interested in a tour or would like to receive more information regarding the United Anglers of Casa Grande High School, please call or write:
United Anglers of Casa Grande High School
333 Casa Grande Road
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 778-4703 or (707) 778-4703
Imagine the reduction in costs, time and red tape that could be accomplished by having high schools get more actively hands-on involved in all sorts of conservation work. Think of the meaning it would give to kids who live in a world that spends far too little time participating in the food chain and learning conservation first-hand.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.