I will say from my personal experience that not only is every contrivance employed that human ingenuity can devise to destroy the salmon of our west coast rivers, but more surely destructive, more fatal than all is the slow but inexorable march of these destroying agencies of human progress, before which the salmon must surely disappear as did the buffalo of the plains and the Indian of California. The helpless salmon’s life is gripped between these two forces - the murderous greed of the fisherman and the whitee man’s advancing civilization - and what hope is there for salmon in the end?
Seventy years ago the chinook salmon of California was an important natural resource, s famous throughout the world as the gold, the redwood trees, and the city of San Francisco. With a prodigal disregard for the future, hundreds of thousands of pounds of salmon were taken from the rivers and canned for shipment to all parts of the world. The present-day salmon fisheries of the Columbia River and Alaska were nonexistent in the seventies of the last century - then the entire industry ws restricted to San Francisco Bay and the lower Sacramento River. Any other than “California Salmon” was unheard of in those days. But that fishery did not last long. In less than twenty years it reached its peak and began to decline as quickly as it had risen. The canneries moved on to the Columbia, to Seattle, and Alaska, and the words Alaska and Columbia River on the labels of the new cans became so familiar that most Californians forgot about their own salmon.
The canneries alone were not responsible for the decline of the salmon. It is probable that intensive fishery between 1864 and 1882 had les effect on the salmon runs than the hydraulic mining that damaged hundreds of miles of rivers during those same years. Later, when the salmon were no longer considered an imporant resource in California, dams without fish ladders barred them from many spawning areas or held the water back from the riverbedss below, and unscreened irrigation ditches carried young salmon out in the fields by the millions to die. Yet all this was not enough to destroy the salmon completely. For years they have been coming back, trying to repopulate what is left of their rivers. But within the last few years man has devised new dams and water projects that will cut off much of the remaining spawning mileage from the salmon.
The year 1872 is a significant one in the history of the Sacramento salmon. In that year the newly established U.S. Fish Commission received an appropriation of $15,000 to be spent in the “propagation of food fishes.” At a meeting held by Commissioner Spencer Fullerton Baird and attended by various New England fish commissioners and members of the American Fish Culturist Association, Livingston Stone, a retired minister who had recently taken up trout culture, suggested the importation of California salmon to replace the vanishing salmon of the New England streams. It seemed a good idea at the time, for it was not known then that the Pacific and Atlantic salmon are entirely different fish with radically different life cycles.
In the late summer of 1872 Livingston Stone and two young assistants found their way to the McCloud Rier nearing the end of their quest for spawning ground of the chinook salmon. As they picked their way between the rocks and trees along the riverbank they looked into the water for signs of salmon. Many strange and rough characters roamed the hills of northern California those days - miners, hunters, susveyors, and less respectable individuals, but these three New England gentlemen in search of a site for a fish hatchery were a new sort. Stone, the retired Unitarian clergyman who sought outdoor work for the benefit of his health, was a stocky man, conspicuously shorter than his two companions. His round head was framed by a pair of elegant brown dundrearies that partially concealed his large ears. One of his companions was a massive fellow whose solid chin was softened by a fringe of beard. The other was slighter and beardless.
They did not have far to walk after leaving the ferry across Pit River just below the fork where the McCloud comes in, and must have been unprepared for the scene ahead of them. Two miles upstream the McCloud turns toward the foot of a high limestone crag and then makes another turn to the left along the front of the crag. From the first turn the three men could see the gray rock towering above the dense forest, the smooth water at the farther bend, and the white churning of the water over the riffle at the nearer bend. To their left was a sandy beach and a low hill on which were clustered the brush huts of an Indian village. The Indians were fishing, wading out on the riffle with long double-pronged spears. On the other side of the river the forest grew almost to the water’s edge. The retired parson named the crag Mount Persephone, but on the maps it now bears the prosaic name of Horse Mountain. The hatchery he built on the bank of the river within the morning shadow of the crag he named Baird in honor of the first commissioner of fisheries. Soon the new Shasta Dam will cover it under nearly three hundred feet of water.
The three men lost no time in getting down to work after arriving on this scence. They had hoped to hire the Indians to help them, bu the Indians could speak no English. Working unaided in the hottest part of the summer, the fish culturists built a house, a flume for their water supply, and a series of hatchery troughs. The neares sawmill was at the railroad terminus of Red Bluff, fifty miles to the south, and their lumber had to be hauled by wagon over the rough mountain roads. In spite of these difficulties the job was finished in two weeks, and on September 15 the first salmon were taken from the river. The hatchery became a famous place in northern California as much for its cultured atmosphere - there were no oaths or card playing, and its superintendent became the acknowledged chess champion of the state - as for the queer things being done with salmon eggs.
Fish culture has not advanced very far beyond the practice of seventy years ago. Then a female ws “stripped” of her eggs by squeezing her somewhat after the fashion of milking a cow. Today she is hit on the head with a club and the eggs cut out of her body, which is less wasteful of the eggs. After the eggs have been removed, a ripe male is forced to ejaculate milt over them. The fertilized eggs are then placed in baskets in long troughs of running water. For the first week or ten days they are picked over for dead eggs. After ten days the eggs become “tender” and cannot be handled. Even jarring the tray at this stage may kill the eggs. Then, about fifteen or twenty days after fertilization, the eye of the embryo appears as a small black spot on the egg. In this eyed stage the embryo is very tough, and the eggs can be packed in trays with moss, burlap, or ice an shipped to the far corners of the earth. They will hatch in six to nine weeks, depending on the temperature of the water in which they are placed. The only important change in this procedure has been the development of a drip incubator, in which the eggs are placed in shallow trays and water is percolated over them to cool them by evaporation. This method is not widely used, however.
The artificial propagation of salmon was so simple and obviously successful - after all, the fish were hatched - that it was assumed at the beginning that it was a notable improvement on the wasteful ways of nature. It is hard, in these sosphisticated days, to realize the fascinated delight of the early hatchery men took in their business of raising fish, how they watched over the eggs in the long troughs of cold water, picking them over with feathers like fussy hens, and the pride with which they watched the newly hatched alevins. They did not suspect that the natural hardihood and vitality of the eggs had as much to do with the success of their hatcheries as their human intervention in rescuing the eggs from the perils of the river.
That nature’s methods of propagating salmon might not be as wasteful as they seem never occurred to them. Given half a chance, the salmon needs no assistance from man. It cannot, however, survive the total demolition of the rivers that is the inevitable result of power, mining, and irrigation developments.
In the beginning the hatchery on the McCloud River was simply an egg-gathering station. During the first season fifty thousand eggs were taken, of which thirty thousand survived to the eyed state. These were packed in sphagnum moss and shipped east. In March of the following year, 1873, a few hundred fingerlings were released in the Susquehanna River. Thus began the unsuccessful attempt to transplant the Pacific Salmon to the Atlantic, an effort that was not abandonded until ten or fifteen years ago.