The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes: California's Lost Salmon

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coho salmonCalifornia Coho Salmon are listed as federally protected,
and are critically endangered. Image: Richard James
The Russian River is my family river. When my children tip over the canoe, or launch off a rope swing and plop into the quiet green waters, it will hold more religious significance for me than any other baptism ever could. That is how important that place is to my family and me. We love The River.

As we would with any loved one, we care about its health and well being. Over the years we have witnessed wanton pollution from purposeful and "accidental" sewage spills, there has been gravel mining, seemingly unchecked agri-business dumping pesticides and sucking wells dry, and more than anything, precious water has been continuously pumped out and diverted to quench the thirst of the ever-growing populations of Sonoma and Marin Counties. Each one of these factors has taken some of the life and wildness out of the Russian River. And there comes a point when the natural world and The River does not have anything left to give.

Still there is the hope that nature is resilient. One of the best indicators of environmental health on the Russian River would be the return of the native salmon. While producing our story on these magnificent fish we had the privilege to witness the incredibly dedicated conservation fishery biologists at the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery at Lake Sonoma. Seeing them work gave me a lot of hope. These men and women literally hold the future of the coho salmon in their hands. Each egg is tenderly cared for– each little growing fish is carefully identified, numbered and individually tagged before being gently released into the wild. It is an enormous, time-consuming and laborious task. But without them, the critically endangered coho salmon have little or no realistic chance of returning to the Russian River.

Sadly, it seems that much of their work may have gone for naught. In early April 2009, for just one night's frost protection, the wineries of the Russian River valley went against a request by the National Marine Fisheries Service and turned open their taps, taking so much water out of the Russian River watershed that the water-table dramatically dropped resulting in a massive coho salmon die-off. It's another heartbreaking blow to an already perilous situation. The wineries were told specifically about the consequences of their actions last year at a special meeting held by the State Water Resources Control Board. Yet to protect a small percentage of an already glutted crop, the wineries knowingly risked dooming an entire species to extinction.

For more information see:

Quick drop in water level kills coho | The Press Democrat | Santa Rosa, CA
04/04/09
Frost protection measures to save crops stranded fish in Russian River tributary

Coho killed after water diverted to protect crops | SF Chronicle
04/04/09
Endangered coho salmon killed after a sudden drop in the water level…

I have always advocated for The Russian River and its small communities and businesses. I recommend it as the perfect getaway for friends looking for a weekend exploration. Hiking, canoeing, wine-tasting or exploring–The River is the place. In turn I have also regularly recommended and sought out Russian River wines. But I doubt I'll be recommending anything from this year's vintage. I have a feeling the 2009 Russian River wines are going to leave a very bitter taste.

 

Watch the California's Lost Salmon television story online.

 

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Environment, Sustainable Food, Water

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Media Producer for QUEST. Chris has nearly 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in San Francisco.
  • Chris Bauer

    Recently the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story detailing the plight of the coho salmon in San Geronimo Creek.

    To learn more about what the coho are facing there check out:
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/10/10/BA031A1G5O.DTL

    Hopefully the big storm we are getting today will help some of the salmon make their way safely to the sea.

  • Chris Bauer

    There's recent water news coming from up at the Russian River too. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that Sonoma County supervisors have ordered reductions in water flows along Dry Creek and the Russian River.
    For more on this see: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20090922/ARTICLES/909229967

    And in another somewhat related Press Democrat article, apparently some Russian River vintners are now having trouble selling all their grapes and are contemplating letting them rot on the vine. See the article “Tough sell for grape growers” at
    http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091006/BUSINESS/910069912

  • Chris Bauer

    Last year when the California Academy of Sciences moved from their temporary home in downtown San Francisco to their wonderful new building in Golden Gate Park, The Academy donated aquarium tanks to a number of institutions, including the Tiburon Salmon Institute. According to a recent post on the Academy’s blog page, the National Marine Fisheries Service is now burrowing some of the donated 500-gallon tanks in order to protect salmon from their coho salmon hatchery near Santa Cruz. The mountains around the hatchery were struck by wildfire this past summer. Hatchery managers are now concerned that the coming winter rains will wash ash, silt, and other contaminants into the creeks which feed the hatchery, changing the pH of the water, and potentially clogging the gills of the endangered coho. The hope is the donated tanks may help the hatchery’s coho ride out the storm in clean water until they’re ready to be released into the wild. Read more about it here: http://news.santacruz.com/2009/08/19/firestorm_of_trouble_for_santa_cruz_salmon

  • Chris Bauer

    A bit of good news coming out of the Russian River. Apparently this year’s threatened Chinook salmon run is going better than expected and researchers have counted double what they saw at this time last year. There is still much to be concerned about, poaching included, and the salmon are far from being out of the woods, but it’s nice to hear some good things for a change. To read more, see: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091024/ARTICLES/910249960

  • Chris Bauer

    Learn more about how you can help save California's wild salmon at the Bay Institute. Also check out their comprehensive list on when and where you can see wild salmon in the California Central Valley and San Francisco Bay Area. See: http://bay.org/rivers-and-delta/viewing-wild-salmon

  • http://www.kqed.org/quest Chris Bauer

    In November 2009 The Center for Biological Diversity, Northern California River Watch, and Coast Action Group sent notice of intent to sue California’s State Water Resources Control Board for authorizing water diversions that harm federally protected salmon and steelhead trout in the Russian River and Gualala River watersheds. They claim the water board is violating the Endangered Species Act by permitting water diversions in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, primarily for vineyards, that adversely affect salmon. To read more about this, see:

    http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2009/russian-river-11-17-2009.html

    Also heading to court are two other lawsuits filed by The Center for Biological Diversity against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect two critically imperiled San Francisco Bay-Delta fish species, the longfin smelt and delta smelt. According to the suit, the Fish and Wildlife Service improperly denied federal listing for the longfin smelt under Endangered Species Act and also failed to respond to a 2006 petition to change the delta smelt's federal status from threatened to endangered. See:

    http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2009/delta_smelt-11-13-2009.html

    For additional information regarding Northern California watershed issues, log onto:

    http://www.northerncaliforniariverwatch.org/

  • Chris Bauer

    Today the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced an award of $696,000 to the Coho Water Resources Partnership, to improve stream flows and water supply in five tributaries of the Russian River. This is seen as critical to the recovery of endangered coho salmon in The River.

    According to the press release, “The long-term goals are to restore a more natural flow regime during the dry season, increase the number of wild coho salmon, and augment water storage capacity for a variety of land uses in each watershed.”

    For more information, go to: http://www.cohopartnership.org.

  • Chris Bauer

    The California Farm Bureau has reported that Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Jefferey Holtzman attended a recent Russian River frost protection workshop, where he advised local vineyard owners of the legal risks of water diversion for frost protection.

    According to the report “Holtzman, who has been prosecuting environmental crimes for 20 years, told the standing-room-only assembly of growers that officials of the national fisheries service, the state Department Fish and Game and other agencies have made it clear to him and his office that there will be heightened enforcement this frost season.”

    To read the whole article, see:
    http://www.cfbf.com/agalert/AgAlertStory.cfm?ID=1479&ck=DC09C97FD73D7A324BDBFE7C79525F64

  • Chris Bauer

    The Pacific Fishery Management Council's posted a new report on February 11th, 2010, stating that only 39,530 chinook or "king" salmon adults returned to the Sacramento River basin in 2009 to spawn.

    Salmon fishing restrictions off the California coast are likely to be enforced for the 3rd year in a row.

    To read more, see the AP article:
    Feds: Calif. returning Chinook salmon a record low
    http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_14384780

    California Department of Fish & Game’s Salmon Page:
    http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/oceansalmon.asp

  • Chris Bauer

    The Bay Institute is reporting the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem is “facing its most serious threat in a decade.” “California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, is proposing to waive federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections – the last line of defense against extinction – for three of the most imperiled species, Chinook salmon, steelhead and delta smelt.”

    According to the article, (found here: http://www.bay.org/newsroom/commentary/21810-senator-feinstein-proposes-direct-attack-on-protection-for-endangered-spec ) “A dozen members of Congress from California and Oregon have written Senator Feinstein asking her to withdraw her rider. Almost every major newspaper in California – whether in the north, the south or the valley – has come out in opposition to her proposal noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and other news outlets. Thus far, unfortunately, she has shown no inclination to drop the rider.”

    The Bay Institute is asking people to contact Senator Feinstein’s office and ask her to withdraw the “Emergency Temporary Water Supply Amendment.”

    Senator Feinstein's contact information:
    Washington, DC office phone number: (202) 224-3841
    Washington, DC office fax number: (202) 228-3954

    San Francisco office phone number: (415) 393-0707
    San Francisco office fax number: (415) 393-0710
    Email form: http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=ContactUs.EmailMe

  • Chris Bauer

    Will you have wild salmon on your plate this year? Maybe. After two consecutive closed fishing seasons, California's Chinook salmon fishery is likely to be opened this year… although, not without restrictions.

    Salmon are clearly not out of the woods. But with up to 245,000 fall-run Chinook salmon predicted to return to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems to spawn this year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has proposed options for limited salmon fishing.

    To learn more, see:
    The Pacific Fishery Management Council: http://www.pcouncil.org/

    And from SFGate: Fishermen likely to see limited salmon season
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/03/12/MNU61CECO9.DTL

  • Chris Bauer

    To see a very nice video on Coho salmon in West Marin, visit the good folks at Bay Nature.
    See:
    http://baynature.org/videos/coho-salmon-in-west-marin

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: On May 11, 2010, Federal fisheries officials from NOAA fined a Healdsburg vintner $115,500 for diverting water from the Russian River watershed in order to protect his grapes from frost damage. Federal officials say this type of mass water diversion killed endangered coho salmon in both 2008 and 2009.
    According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the vineyard owners strongly denied the charges, insisting their modest diversion of water from Felta Creek could not have caused the sharp water level drops that stranded the young fish.
    “We're very green people,” said Eric Stadnik,, the vineyard’s owner. “It's not like we're some corporation that doesn't care.”
    The thing is- any of the vineyard owners in the Russian River Valley could say the same thing. But collectively they, including Mr. Stadnik, all contributed to the staggering loss of the critically endangered Coho salmon. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. This took place two years in a row despite fishery biologist’s dire warnings. Reportedly, Mr. Stadnik made an informed decision knowing that his water diversion would result in killing the endangered fish. And now he and, hopefully soon, others will have to pay a price.
    For more information on this story, see: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20100511/ARTICLES/100519926/1033/NEWS?p=1&tc=pg

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: In recent years a plan has been put in place to lower the water flow of the Russian River during the summer. As you might imagine, this has sparked considerable debate up in western Sonoma County. People have expressed concerns about water quality, impacts of recreation and worry for wildlife such as the harbor seals at the mouth of the river. Less water coming down the main stem of the river can have many effects. Some are obvious, such as shallower waters, little or no river current and the mouth closing, which creates a large, fresher water lagoon at Jenner. Some other impacts may go nearly unseen; things such as water temperature, concentrations of contaminants, algae blooms or other environmental consequences. Some biologists argue that this is a return to a more natural state and valuable to the critically endangered salmon population. Others kindly retort that this would be true if “natural state” of the Russian River was not already dramatically altered by the many users, pulling so much water out of the river system. As we say here out west, “whiskey if for drinking, water if for fighting over.”

    To get a sense of the debate and to better understand the biological effects of lower water flows to the Russian River estuary, see two recent articles in the Sonoma County Gazette.

    http://sonomacountygazette.blogspot.com/2010/06/water-agency-separates-low-flow-and.html/

    http://sonomacountygazette.blogspot.com/2010/06/jenner-estuary-biological-opinion.html

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: According the National Park Service and Parks Conservancy, regional Coho populations are on the brink of extinction.

    "This past winter (2009-2010), fishery biologists and volunteers documented the third consecutive season of major declines of coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) in central coastal California. With the exception of Redwood Creek, Marin County watersheds saw an 85% reduction in returning adult coho spawners from the previous generation."

    "In response to these dramatic declines, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) have developed extinction prevention plans for these local populations. NPS has worked closely with both NMFS and CDFG to formulate immediate action items including:

    * Establish inter-agency working groups to implement emergency coho recovery efforts.
    * Minimize coho mortality rates and habitat degradation as far as possible.
    * Investigate opportunities to augment current coho populations by captive rearing and adult release.
    * Determine and remove population bottlenecks in coho bearing streams when feasible.

    "Currently, NPS and the Parks Conservancy are restoring lower Redwood Creek which will improve the current bottleneck in rearing habitat for coho. In addition NPS is working with NMFS and CDFG on the development of a rear and release program that is consistent with recovery plan recommendations."

    Also:

    "Redwood Creek Restoration at Muir Beach Moving Ahead Though work only began in mid-July, the outline of much of the new creek alignment is already visible as is the new alignment of the Coastal Trail. So far, hundreds of fish have been temporarily relocated while water is pumped out of the stream so that gravel for the new creek channel can be excavated. Project managers and staff have gone to great lengths to protect other wildlife at the site including birds and amphibians." The NPS web site has more information < http://www.nps.gov/goga/naturescience/muir-beach.htm.

  • Chris Bauer
  • Douglas Starr

    The second concern is a much bigger deal than the first.

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: SANTA CRUZ — A group of scientists on the lookout for steelhead in the San Lorenzo River has made a surprising discovery: more young fish than they've ever seen. read more about it here: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_16366605

  • Chris Bauer

    Blessing the salmon's return:
    According to the National Parks Science Update, friends of salmon and the GGNRA will gather around the campfire on November 14th (from 1 to 3 pm) with members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria who will say their traditional salmon blessing. Storytelling, native craft-making, traditional fire-starting, and bring your favorite nature readings to wish salmon a strong and healthy return to their home in Redwood Creek. Families and well-behaved pets are welcome. Meet on the beach where the creek meets the ocean. For details call 388-2596.

  • Chris Bauer

    The National Park Service and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy are now working to restore Redwood Creek in Marin County. The hope is that through their efforts Coho Salmon will return in greater numbers.

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/11/11/MN1O1GAMHQ.DTL#ixzz15N5oRsEf

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: "A controversial plan to resume gravel mining, a practice that has been blamed for wiping out tens of thousands of salmon in the Russian River over the past century, is scheduled for approval next week along an important stretch of the river."

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/12/01/MNN51GJ70L.DTL#ixzz18gVVCm4h

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: "One of the last runs of wild coho salmon in California has surged into the Lagunitas Creek watershed in western Marin County, bringing renewed hope to fisheries experts, watershed managers and those who have devoted their lives to salmon procreation."

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/12/16/MNCS1GQ185.DTL#ixzz18gW8Y6fd

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: The proposal to mine up to 350,000 tons of gravel per year from the Russian River has sped through county approval process, according to Northern California River Watch.

    "On October 26th, the Sonoma County Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve Syar Industries massive 350,000 tons per year 15-year mining permit based on a flawed EIR and information not available to the public. The Syar Project went through county review in record time to ensure outgoing Supervisor Paul Kelley could vote to approve it. Supervisor Kelley has received extensive support in past elections from Syar and the mining industry. The project ignores basic scientific knowledge that excessive mining will degrade or destroy critical habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead and lead to increased erosion downstream that will damage others property. Due to flaws in the EIR and science behind the plan it is likely Riverkeeper will seek legal remedies to address this flawed project."

    Northern California River Watch's description of Proposed Syar Alexander Valley Mining Project:

    * 15 year permit for mining 350,000 tons per year from 15 gravel bars near Geyserville
    * Allows for excavation of majority of gravel accumulated since 1994 using a baseline
    * Generate up to 480 heavy trucks between Geyserville and Healdsburg during summer
    * Requires ARM amendments allowing 15 year permit rather than 10 and to allow mining in the upper 2/3’s of gravel bars
    * Ignores sediment budgets although requires annual monitoring and agency review

    For more information, see: http://www.ncriverwatch.org/wordpress/

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: A lawsuit was filed Thursday challenging a plan to resume gravel mining in the Russian River

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/01/06/BAP21H5BPD.DTL#ixzz1AN04Inzp

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Salmon forecast brightens fishing season
    "The biggest population of chinook salmon since 2006 is plying coastal waters right now, according to fishery biologists, who are predicting a spawning bonanza in the fall.

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/03/09/MNRR1I6PVM.DTL#ixzz1GDdq1zQf

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Last December NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries Service approved the East Austin Creek Conservation Bank designed to permanently preserve and restore over 400 acres of prime habitat in the Russian River Watershed for the preservation and recovery of federally endangered Central California Coast Coho salmon and threatened steelhead. The bank will be managed by the Wildlife Heritage Foundation in perpetuity.

    Read more here:

    http://sonomacountygazette.blogspot.com/2010/12/first-conservation-fish-bank-along.html

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Endangered Coho Salmon Return to Russian River

    California Department of Fish and Game News Release
    March 23, 2011

    Scientists working on the recovery of endangered coho salmon in northern California appreciate success even if it comes in small doses. Field biologists from the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) are reporting the largest number of coho returning to spawn in Sonoma County tributaries of the Russian River in more than a decade.

    Most of these fish were released as fingerlings into the river system, as part of a captive broodstock program at Don Clausen Warm Springs Hatchery on Lake Sonoma. The broodstock program began 10 years ago, when wild coho salmon were rapidly vanishing from the region.

    Prior to the launch of the recovery program in 2001, the number of returning adult coho salmon averaged less than four per year. These low numbers were the catalyst for the Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program, a recovery effort in which offspring from hatchery-reared adults are released into the river system.

    This year, biologists estimate that more than 190 adult coho may have returned to the Russian River system, beginning with early storms in October and peaking in December. Promisingly, a few coho are being sighted in creeks that are not stocked, utilizing habitat beyond those tributaries in which coho are released.

    “We are hopeful that coho salmon released through this program will continue to return to the Russian River system in increasing numbers and begin to establish self-sustaining populations,” says Manfred Kittel, Coho Salmon Recovery Coordinator for DFG’s Bay Delta Region. “The program is a cornerstone of coho salmon recovery efforts in central California, but the number of fish observed this year must be seen in perspective. A healthy coho population should number in the tens of thousands in California.”

    Coho salmon abundance has declined dramatically statewide in the past few years. Biologists believe that additional captive breeding efforts and other focused recovery measures will likely have to be instituted to prevent widespread extinction of coho salmon in central California.

    Coho salmon in central California are listed as an endangered species under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. It is against the law to catch them anywhere in the state.

    The Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program is a broad coalition of government agencies, scientists and private landowners dedicated to bringing back productive salmon runs. Its members include DFG, which manages the hatchery component at the Don Clausen Warm Springs Hatchery, University of California Sea Grant Extension, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and Sonoma County Water Agency.

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Great anticipation for best salmon season in years

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/03/30/SP401ILV36.DTL#ixzz1IIeaV72V

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: According to San Francisco Bay Area National Parks update, Coho salmon smolts are relatively abundant this year.
    “Smolts (coho and steelhead getting ready to leave freshwater streams and migrate out to sea) have already been caught at all four trapping locations in just the first three weeks of monitoring. Olema Creek has yielded 80 coho and 4 steelhead smolts, which is within the range seen in previous years.”
    “Redwood Creek traps have caught 417 coho and 16 steelhead smolts! Out of this total, a whopping 238 coho and 7 steelhead smolts have been captured at one backwater inlet—important habitat for coho and steelhead in this stream. Redwood Creek smolts not only started earlier this year, their numbers are also impressive considering the previous high was 50 coho smolts captured in 2007. It is too early in the season to know if this is the peak of the outmigration or there are more smolts yet to come.” To learn more about coho see http://www.sfnps.org/coho.

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: "This month, for the first time in two years, salmon fishing season is fully open in the Pacific Northwest. But for the salmon fisherman, who have been unable to make a living on their work for two seasons, it’s still too early to tell if the tide has truly turned." Read more:
    http://64.207.156.94/2011/05/17/salmon-fishing-season-opens-after-years-of-restrictions-tensions-remain/

  • Chris Bauer

    WATCH more salmon online at kqed.org. See a fantastic new episode of NATURE that looks at the plight of western salmon and what biologists are doing to help save the populations. Included on the website are information pages on the salmon lifestyle, hatchery and dam maps and other useful salmon information. Go to http://video.kqed.org/video/1891112523

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  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: Some Good News for Coho salmon from San Francisco Bay Area National Parks:

    "Olema Creek had a preliminary smolt estimate of 1435 ± 463 smolts which is much higher than the 10 smolts captured last spring. Although higher than last year, it is about half the number of smolt observed three years ago—the last time this year class was monitored. Redwood Creek had a preliminary estimate of 3646 ± 308 smolts which is ten times great than last year and 40% higher than three years ago. In addition 499 coho smolts were captured in a backwater area at Redwood Creek, which is encouraging given plans to construct more backwater habitat at the site, including one this summer."

  • Chris Bauer

    STORY UPDATE: The dense forests of redwood, oak and Douglas fir that once covered much of Sonoma County have for many decades been giving way to pastures, orchards, subdivisions — and vineyards.

    Now, those vineyards are emerging as yet another threat to a fish that would go just perfectly with the region’s signature pinot noir: the coho salmon.

    READ MORE HERE: http://www.baycitizen.org/water/story/wine-vs-salmon-water-wars-hit-sonoma/#comments