The North Coast of California once hosted one of the richest fisheries along the Pacific Coast. Salmon and steelhead are the iconic fisheries of the region, and North Coast rivers – including the Klamath and Eel – once supported enormous populations of Chinook and coho salmon, winter and summer steelhead, and coastal cutthroat trout. A historical review of Eel river salmon and steelhead estimated combined annual runs in the Eel River exceeded one million adult fish in good years (~ 800,000 Chinook salmon, ~100,000 coho salmon, ~150,000 steelhead). Halibut, groundfish, and Dungeness crab rounded out a wealthy commercial fishery. Pacific lamprey and green sturgeon are also recognized as important native species to North Coast rivers.

Our North Coast ecosystems, their salmon and steelhead populations, and other native fish and wildlife populations have been in decline for the past century and a half since the start of Euro-American settlement in the region. Much of the decline may be attributed to loss or degradation of physical and biological conditions in the ecosystem caused by human activities, including commercial and recreational fish harvests and cannery operations, several periods of large-scale timber harvest, land conversion for agricultural activities, water developments and diversions, rural an urban residential development, introduction of non-native species, and a multitude of additional minor factors.

In the late 1990’s, due to the decline in the commercial fisheries and poor ecological health of our coastal waterways, state and federal agencies began imposing restrictions and regulations on the North Coast’s iconic fishery resources, including entire fisheries bought out with federal funding to reduce impacts. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) coho salmon (1997), California Coastal Chinook Salmon (1999), and Northern California steelhead (2000) as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. And the California Fish and Game Commission also listed coho salmon as threatened in 2005. In addition, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has listed North Coast rivers as impaired on the federal Clean Water Act 303(d) list, primarily for excessive sediment and increased water temperatures. The State Board of Forestry imposed new Forest Practice Rules in 2009, restricting many traditional timber harvest practices.

Considerable effort has been made in recent years by resource agencies, private industries, conservation organizations, and other stakeholders – sustained by an infusion of state and federal funding – to promote restoration of salmon habitat, watersheds, and river corridors to protect ecosystem health, bring back our commercial and recreational fisheries, and meet sustainable harvest goals. The vast majority (>90%) of the habitat was diked and leveed over the last 150 years for conversion into land. These changes largely eliminated habitat available to estuarine dependent juvenile salmonids, especially coho salmon whose life cycle exhibits their retention in fresh and brackish water for approximately one full year after emerging as fry. Conservation and restoration actions are underway to protect and restore tidal wetlands, notably the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge and restoration of the Elk River estuary.