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Smith River Fisheries and Ecosystem Report - Executive Summary

The salmon and steelhead fisheries of the Smith River in northwestern California are important ecologically and economically. They are also important as an inspiring symbol of the vitality of our region and life itself. For these reasons and more, there is widespread support for maintaining and restoring this river and its fisheries.

The fisheries of the Smith River have declined since the turn of the century, and there have been human-induced changes to the river system. However there are many reasons to hope that the Smith River can survive and flourish as one of the premier rivers of the nation. One hopeful fact is that the Smith River is perhaps the most intact river ecosystem in California. There are no dams on the Smith River. Another advantage is that the Smith River has the resilience to recover rapidly from ecological impacts. The river and fisheries also benefit from the protection conferred by the Smith River National Recreation Area. Because the Smith River watershed is an island of biotic integrity in a region of compromised rivers, it is protected as a "key watershed" in the Northwest Forest Plan (FEMAT 1993). Because the Smith River system is in relatively good condition, there is an outstanding opportunity for renewal of anadromous fisheries.

This report, sponsored by the Institute for River Ecosystems at Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, proposes a series of steps for renewing the Smith River ecosystem and its fisheries (Table 1). In the first step, discussed only briefly in this report, general goals are set through collaboration of concerned people and organizations. This report focuses extensively on Step 2 which includes gathering and analyzing information as well as identifying potential improvements in ecosystem functions and fisheries (Table 2). Research needs and monitoring methods are also identified. In Step 3, potential methods are evaluated in relation to community goals. The most promising activities are assembled into an implementation strategy.


Table 1. Steps in ecosystem restoration planning and degree of coverage in this report.



Discussion in this report:

Step 1

Articulate values, write a mission statement, and set general social, economic, and ecological goals. Community participation is necessary. Identify preferred forms of economic production, especially biological production, including aesthetic, recreational, subsistence, and commodity benefits.

Minimal due to need for community input.

Step 2

Organize ecosystem information and identify potential management actions, research needs, and monitoring methods.


Step 3

Integrate values and ecosystem information into a strategy.

a) Evaluate proposed actions, future trends, risks, and benefits.

b) Determine whether community goals can be met by the proposed methods, given the productive capacity of the ecosystem.

c) Synthesize selected actions into a restoration strategy that operates in multiple time frames and includes monitoring and hypothesis testing.

Partial and tentative due to need for community dialogue concerning values and goals.

Step 4

Implement the selected strategy including monitoring.

Glean new knowledge from monitoring results.


Step 5

Return to Step 1 or 2 for the next iteration.


A successful restoration strategy must meet the goals of the local community as well as regional goals for fisheries restoration. Planning must involve the local community in the task of integrating economic needs, quality of life benefits, and fisheries restoration. Community dialogue is necessary in order to create continuity in restoration programs over years and decades (Table 2, recommendation 1).

Along with the social and political aspects of restoration, the biological aspects are also challenging and involve two overlapping aims: 1) better understanding of stream ecosystem integrity, including potential restoration methods 2) better understanding of salmon and steelhead populations and their habitats, including potential restoration methods. Restoration priorities are identified through analyzing information about stream ecosystem integrity and fisheries in the watershed context.

Overall ecosystem integrity and fish habitat quality can be assessed through "indicators" that describe key ecosystem processes. Important stream ecosystem indicators include streamside vegetation, amounts of large wood in the stream channel, size of sediment particles, rate of sediment movement, and shape of the stream channel. Observation of these factors helps identify the biotic refuges (relatively undisturbed habitats) that should be protected as the most immediate restoration priority (Table 2, recommendation 2). These factors also help identify activities that degrade stream habitats (Table 2, recommendation 3). By reducing human activities throughout the watershed that degrade stream habitat quality, habitats will often recover over time without further human effort. In general, ecosystem processes are more effective at restoring habitat than human engineering. Ecosystem processes, such as creation of log jams and inundation of the floodplain, tend to restore habitat without bureaucracy nor funding and should not be interferedd with in most cases.

Restoring some ecosystem processes and components requires many years. In some cases, careful human intervention can speed renewal of these components and processes. Over years and decades, it is important to restore degraded areas adjacent to biotic refuges. This will allow sensitive species to expand their range. Over decades, restoration priorities may include renewing larger ecosystem components, such as increasing the size of the estuary and floodplains. Such large projects should proceed cautiously because experience is lacking in engineering to reinitiate wild ecosystems.

Along with the actions described above that aim mostly to restore native ecosystem processes, an overlapping group of activities focuses more specifically on anadromous salmonids. (Anadromous fishes are those that spend part of their life in freshwater and part in the ocean.) The intention is to understand fish populations and the factors that limit them. By visualizing fish populations in their watershed context, specific fisheries restoration opportunities are identified. This involves studying the timing and distribution of habitat needs of anadromous fish during their migrations through the river network. If habitats that limit anadromous fish populations can be identified, restoration of these habitats may be feasible but success is by no means certain. Human manipulation of fish habitat is risky, and such projects should be designed as experiments that increase knowledge while minizing risk.

Analysis of the Smith River system suggests that conditions in the headwaters and upper tributaries are not limiting fish populations. In these upper watershed areas, protection of biotic refuges and prevention of degrading activities are the primary means of enhancing fisheries production. Preliminary analysis also suggests that declines in fish populations are due to changes in the estuary, lower river, lower tributaries, and subbasin mainstems. The most significant changes are probably reduction in estuary habitat and decreases in habitat complexity in the estuary, lower river, lower tributaries, and subbasin mainstems.

Construction of levees has reduced the size of the estuary, the amount of rearing habitat for fish, and possibly overall fish populations. Levees also restrict interaction between the river, estuary, and floodplain. In the absence of levees, high stream flows wash across the floodplain, creating side channels and other forms of habitat complexity. Habitat complexity provides many benefits to fish populations including improved conditions for migration. There is a high potential for increasing anadromous fish populations through restoration of ecological processes in the estuary.

In addition to the effects of levees on the estuary and lower river, other factors have probably decreased habitat complexity in the estuary, lower river, lower tributaries, and subbasin mainstems. A component of habitat complexity that has possibly decreased is large woody debris in streams. This component can be gradually increased through regeneration of conifers in riparian areas. Decades later, these trees find their way into the stream and create habitat complexity. In areas with road access, directly adding logs to streams may be a feasible and effective restoration method.


Table 2. Recommended priority actions for restoration as determined through preliminary studies.


Encourage an inclusive public dialogue concerning potential fisheries restoration methods.


Identify and protect biotic refuges and connecting links in the river system.


Prevent or reduce activities that degrade aquatic habitat. Especially prevent activities that reduce large woody debris in aquatic habitats.


Develop and test hypotheses about the postulated benefits of estuary restoration


Develop and test hypotheses about the postulated benefits of widening the floodplain


Develop and test hypotheses about postulated benefits of increasing habitat complexity in the estuary, lower river, lower tributaries, and subbasin mainstems.


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