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By Joshua Strange, Stillwater Sciences and Stephen Kullman, Wiyot Tribe 

The Wiyot Tribe is developing its capacity to renew its traditional role as stewards of natural resources. We were recently awarded grant funds through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Species Recovery Grant to Tribes to complete, with assistance from Stillwater Sciences, a three-year study of Eel River ba’m, green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris).

Ba'm, Green Sturgeon, Photo by Thomas Dunklin

Ba’m, Green Sturgeon, Photo by Thomas Dunklin

The goal of this project is to determine the current status and population of origin of North American green sturgeon in the Eel River. Given that the Eel River is one of the larger rivers in California and had an apparently large and important historic spawning run, this project will help bridge a data gap for North American green sturgeon, and provide a more accurate assessment of potential threats to reproduction and recovery. The actual status of green sturgeon in the Eel River remains ambiguous. Official designations consider the spawning run lost, yet sightings still occur annually.

According to NOAA’s recovery planning document for southern Distinct Population Segment (DPS) green sturgeon, “In order to establish a recovery plan for the species, the current status of that species must be understood.” For whatever green sturgeon that still spawn in the Eel River, it is important to determine if they are northern DPS, as presumed without evidence, or if they are southern DPS, or a mix. If they are a mix, then it would be the first documented mixed spawning run.

Another important question is if the Eel River estuary, both the riverine and marine portions, are being used as rearing and feeding habitats for one or both DPSs of green sturgeon similar to nearby Humboldt Bay (mixed), the Umpqua River estuary (northern DPS only), or the Klamath River (mixed in marine estuary, northern DPS only in riverine estuary). Knowledge of spawning timing and location can allow for a more accurate assessment of potential threats to green sturgeon recovery in the Eel River.

The objectives of this project are to determine: the presence, timing, and locations of green sturgeon spawning and holding in the mainstem Eel River; the population of origin (southern DPS vs. northern DPS) of these fish; and the summer residence of green sturgeon in the Eel River estuary (riverine and marine). This project will be conducted from the confluence of the Middle Fork and mainstem Eel River near Dos Rios, to the Pacific Ocean and the near shore marine portion of the estuary over three years.

After reviewing all historical documents regarding green sturgeon, including background scientific data, tribal oral histories, and ecological knowledge, we will assess the availability of habitat based on current water quality figures. We will survey the mainstem Eel River with a DIDSON sonar camera to search for the presence of green sturgeon. Population(s) of origin will be determined by conducting genetic analysis of eggs collected on artificial substrate mats, and a sonic receiver detection network installed in strategic locations will monitor individuals tagged elsewhere. Ultimately all this data will be used in an effort to protect sensitive green sturgeon spawning and holding areas.

The Wiyot Tribe’s concentration on non-salmonid fish research and restoration on the Eel River in no way is meant to diminish the importance of salmonids; in fact we partner with many other agencies devoted to salmonid restoration. The traditional environmental knowledge of the Wiyot Tribe teaches that all species and components of an ecosystem must be healthy for the system to be healthy, including the human element and the perhaps less glamorous gou’daw and ba’m.

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