Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group

MWSSG has been a leading edge salmon habitat restoration group since around 1978. They pioneered the use of locally maintained salmon hatchboxes in California, as a "first-aid" component of a larger, more comprehensive restoration program, using salmon stocks native to their watershed. The small local hatchbox idea had been tried in Alaska with some success. MWSSG got the local community involved in it, which was a critical step.

The hatchboxes are refrigerator-sized redwood boxes laid at stream-side with water piped from high up in the feeder creeks. They are seeded with fertilised salmon eggs and clean gravel. Stream water is plumbed into the bottom of one end of the box, upwells through the gravel, and departs at the top of the other end. As the eggs hatch, the fry struggle to the top and are let out to holding ponds where they will await the time for release to the stream. Eggs-to-fingerling survival rate is around eight times the natural rate. Unlike large state-run hatcheries, these salmon are imprinted on their own creek, to which they will try to return. The salmon population in this watershed is thus an increasingly heterogeneous, and growing population. We could say they don't have all their eggs in one box. Population diversity is maintained by limiting the take of eggs from the natural upstream migration to 5%, yielding about 10%-17% of the young going downstream.

Community members volunteered, or worked at minimal pay, to survey most of the streams in the valley for salmon habitat potential. Prescriptions for improvement were made, mostly for erosion control measures, and restoration efforts began, and continue to this day. Children and young adults have been involved in the processes of securing eggs and milt, seeding the hatchboxes, and tending the fingerlings to release point.

King Salmon runs in this small coastal watershed were down to less than two hundred, from 1950 levels when "you could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon". Today, in spite of a massive landslide in 1983 halfway up the watershed, and a major drought from 1984 to 1988, Salmon are running at around 1000 Chinook (King) and 400 Coho (Silver) and these numbers are slowly but steadily rising. The community has a strong feeling of ownership for this result. That in itself is a more powerful force for watershed health than any state-run program could have been.

Freeman House, David Simpson, and Gary Peterson were the main minds and muscle promoting and supporting this effort in its first few years. Gary Peterson is a fishery biologist, who became a local resident to work on this challenge in the early eighties. His expertise has given the data-gathering program real teeth, and the resulting harvest of knowledge about the watershed and its runs is substantial. Freeman left the MWSSG in the mid eighties to work with the Mattole Restoration Council. In a new book, Totem Salmon - Life Lessons from Another Species, Freeman describes the 20 year effort with its wider ecological and cultural context, and his own deeper personal perspective. It's from Beacon Press, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, Mass 02108. He calls it an "anecdotal memoir of the last twenty years in the Mattole watershed". A book review can be found here.

Mattole Salmon Group, P.O. Box 188, Petrolia, California 95558.
web site:
Mattole Restoration Council, P.O. Box 160, Petrolia, California 95558
See also "What We Have in Common is the Salmon" by Bernard and Young, at