Identifying Salmon Habitat Restoration Priorities in Northern California
NOAA Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have developed a collaborative new process to identify priority actions for restoring salmon and steelhead habitat in Northern California.
Restoring Habitat for California Salmon and Steelhead
Across the West Coast region, 28 populations of salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Habitat loss is a primary factor in their decline. In California, nearly 90 percent of wetlands—crucial habitat for salmon—have been lost due to habitat destruction, spurred by a booming population and economic development.
NOAA Fisheries works with state and local partners in California to rebuild populations of salmon and steelhead through habitat restoration. Our work helps to undo damage done to coastal wetlands and streams. We restore habitat that these fish use for feeding, spawning, and refuge. Working with our partners, we reconnect marshes and floodplains to tidal waters, and improve fish passage in streams by removing dams or replacing undersized culverts.
A New Process for Prioritizing Restoration
Existing state and federal recovery plans have identified numerous short and long-term actions needed to rebuild populations of salmon and steelhead (collectively known as salmonids) in California. These non-regulatory documents serve as road maps for species recovery—each plan outlines the path and tasks required to restore and secure self-sustaining wild populations.
Recovery plans for northern California salmonids are relatively broad in scope. They often cover a large geographic area, because they address recovery needs throughout a species’ range. They also identify numerous recovery actions that may take decades to complete.
Habitat restoration projects, on the other hand, often happen at a smaller spatial scale, such as a single site or a portion of a waterway. It also typically has a shorter planning horizon of up to 10 years. While recovery plans focus on a single species, habitat restoration projects are often designed to benefit multiple species at the same time.
The vast extent of habitat restoration that is needed and the broad scope of recovery plans can often lead to dispersed, unconnected habitat restoration projects that are spread out across the landscape. Each individual project helps improve conditions at a local scale, but this project-by-project approach may miss the larger benefits that come from comprehensive, watershed-scale restoration efforts. Additionally, the restoration actions may not be focused in locations that are most important for salmonid recovery.
Collaborative Method for Prioritization
Salmonid Habitat Restoration Priorities, or SHaRP, is a collaborative, consensus-based process to determine the most pressing habitat restoration actions needed to recover salmonid populations. SHaRP builds on the broader restoration actions described in recovery plans by identifying locations where habitat restoration efforts will have the most impact. The result is a targeted strategy that has the level of detail practitioners need to prioritize, plan, and implement meaningful habitat restoration efforts.
SHaRP reflects a “protect the best” approach. It focuses on protecting and restoring healthier areas, where habitat is not completely degraded and salmonids are doing relatively well. Experts anticipate that healthier salmonid populations from the restored areas will then be able to repopulate other, more degraded areas of a watershed.
NOAA Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) developed the SHaRP process and led its first application. Both agencies contribute expert knowledge about salmonids, their habitat needs, and effective restoration approaches. Community members with invaluable local knowledge have also been engaged. They include representatives from tribes, environmental groups, universities, land managers, and landowners. Additional participants include a number of other governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academia.
The SHaRP process includes:
- Identifying focus areas. Participants identify priority areas in a defined planning area with the greatest potential to support healthy salmonids.
- Evaluating challenges and solutions for each focus area. For each focus area, experts analyze the challenges facing salmonids and identify habitat restoration work that could address each challenge. They then compile their results into an individualized restoration plan for each focus area.
- Building a watershed-wide restoration plan. Combining the habitat restoration plans for each focus area results in a watershed-wide strategy that describes specific restoration projects needed to support the recovery of threatened and endangered salmonids.
Salmon Habitat Restoration Priorities in the South Fork Eel River
The first application of the SHaRP process is now complete in the South Fork Eel River in Northern California. This effort targeted seven focus areas within the larger South Fork Eel River watershed:
- Bull Creek
- Redwood Creek
- Sproul Creek
- Indian Creek
- Standley Creek
- Hollow Tree Creek
- South Fork Eel River headwaters
Why was the South Fork Eel River chosen as the first location?
Restoration of the Eel River will play a critical role in removing salmonids from the list of threatened species. Historically, the Eel River supported countless California Coastal Chinook Salmon, Southern Oregon/Northern California Coho Salmon, and Northern California steelhead. Those fish, in turn, supported a vibrant ecosystem, tribal cultures, and renowned commercial and recreational fisheries.
Within the larger Eel River watershed, several factors make the South Fork Eel River a priority location for restoration. While the entire Eel River watershed has experienced significant declines in salmon and steelhead populations, the South Fork continues to support higher numbers of these wild fish. Much of the habitat remains intact, and there is an engaged restoration community actively seeking tools to prioritize their restoration activities.
These unique characteristics make the South Fork Eel River essential to the recovery of salmon and steelhead, and to preserving these species in the face of challenges like climate change. They make the region an ideal location for implementing the “protect the best” approach that forms the foundation of the SHaRP process.
How have local communities been engaged?
The success of SHaRP depends heavily on community engagement. Creating these highly-specific restoration plans requires a deep, local understanding of the South Fork Eel River. The people who live and work in the region, and who have spent time studying or observing a particular area, have invaluable knowledge. Their insights are key to determining the:
- Most pressing problems facing salmonid habitat
- Best forms of habitat restoration to address those problems
- Specific locations where this restoration should happen
The community was invited to help determine the focus areas within the South Fork Eel River. The data used to rank potential areas and the draft scores for each area were presented at four public meetings held across Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Comments were received over a 120-day period.
Local experts were invited to participate in meetings to identify challenges and potential solutions for each focus area. Representatives from tribes, government agencies, timber companies, environmental groups, and the surrounding community all participated in carrying out the SHaRP process and authoring the plan for the South Fork Eel River. Many members of this group continue to work with NOAA Fisheries and CDFW as they develop proposals for funds to implement restoration projects described in the plan.
The South Fork Eel River Restoration Strategy
The SHaRP plan for the South Fork Eel River includes chapters for each of the seven focus areas. Each of these chapters describes the focus area’s natural setting, history of land use, biggest habitat challenges, and specific restoration projects needed to address these challenges.
Download the full South Fork Eel River SHaRP Plan (PDF, 284 pages), or download the individual chapters, including action plans for each focus area, below:
- Chapter 1: Understanding SHaRP (PDF, 6 pages)
- Chapter 2: Selection of Focus Areas (PDF, 10 pages)
- Chapter 3: Identifying the Problems and Restoration Solutions in Each Focus Area (PDF, 19 pages)
- Chapter 4: Physical and Land-Use Context for Aquatic Habitat in the South Fork Eel River (PDF, 18 pages)
- Chapter 5: Bull Creek Action Plan (PDF, 29 pages)
- Chapter 6: Redwood Creek Action Plan (PDF, 30 pages)
- Chapter 7: Sproul Creek Action Plan (PDF, 26 pages)
- Chapter 8: Indian Creek Action Plan (PDF, 25 pages)
- Chapter 9: Standley Creek Action Plan (PDF, 26 pages)
- Chapter 10: Hollow Tree Creek Action Plan (PDF, 21 pages)
- Chapter 11: South Fork Eel River Headwaters Action Plan (PDF, 26 pages)
New Efforts in Northern California
NOAA Fisheries and CDFW recently started new SHaRP processes in four new areas of northern California:
- Lower Eel River
- Mendocino Coast (Ten Mile, Noyo, Big, Navarro, and Garcia Rivers)
- Lower Russian River (Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mill, and Willow Creeks)
- Lagunitas Creek
More details on these efforts and their progress will be available on this page as they move forward.
The SHaRP process in these new locations may look different from the South Fork Eel River. The physical conditions, size and scale of the planning areas, and extent of previous planning efforts varies in each region. However, each process will be guided by the same set of seven SHaRP “pillars”:
- Strength: Identify the areas where salmonids are doing best and prioritize restoration in those areas
- Focus and scale: Focus resources on areas and treatments with the greatest impact, at a fine geographic scale
- Community: Create and implement plans with the engagement of community members who have local knowledge of the watershed
- Agency alignment: Ensure the deep involvement of NOAA Fisheries and CDFW in the process, to assure the community that the agencies agree with the need for projects identified in the plan
- Multi-species: Consider all threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead occurring in a watershed
- Science: Use sound science, including local knowledge, to drive decisions
- Decision: Make decisions based on the best information available at the time, learning and adapting along the way
While the process may have different components and be applied somewhat differently based on its location, as long as these pillars hold true, it is a SHaRP process.
For more information on SHaRP, contact:
- Julie Weeder, Julie.Weeder@noaa.gov, (707) 825-5168
- Allan Renger, Allan.Renger@wildlife.ca.gov, (707) 725-7194