Saving the World One Fish at a Time

When you’re sifting through a barrel of frozen-solid adult steelhead trout at the Warm Springs hatchery in Geyserville, it’s hard to determine the sex of the fish, much less figure out which one might have been a pregnant spawner before it was captured.

That’s why I felt very clever—and lucky—when the fish my AmeriCorps partner and I selected for our second grade class at the San Francisco Friends School turned out to be filled with roe. At the first touch of my scalpel, like so many bright red pearls, thousands of eggs poured out of her soft, bulging underside onto the dissection table as thirty students crowded around, gazing in wonder.

I was struck by their reactions—not an “eewww” or a groan among them. The class had been looking forward to this day since the beginning of our six-week curriculum, and their awe was infectious. Passing the eggs around the table, I felt a heart connection to my work I never could have imagined a year and a half earlier. That was when I joined the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project (WSP), the environmental service program that immersed me in the lives of salmon, fishermen, Northern California’s magical watersheds, and took my life in a new direction. The two years I spent with the project was almost half the time I’ve lived in California. Now, six months after receiving my Congressional certificate of appreciation and reentering the mainstream job market, it’s hard to imagine my life without WSP.

Since its inception in 1993, the Watershed Stewards Project has become a mainstay of the natural resources community in cities and small towns throughout Northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Its mission statement is “to conserve, restore, and enhance anadromous watersheds for future generations by linking education with high quality scientific practices.” Or as my roommate calls it, saving the world one fish at a time—salmon, to be specific.

The story of salmon in California, unfortunately, is familiar: Two centuries of human activities—logging, ranching, mining, urban development, and overall poor land-use practices—have pushed many fish species to the edge of survival. And, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, as salmon go, so goes the watershed.

I discovered the program shortly after writing an article on Bay Area restoration projects. After interviewing community leaders, state agency workers, and scientists, I decided that writing about environmental restoration wasn’t enough—I wanted to do it.

Those in the environmental professions know the tension that exists in trying to bring about large-scale institutional change without losing one’s connection to the natural world. Since graduating from college with a degree in government and environmental studies, I’ve bounced back and forth between fieldwork and policy work. As a healthy 27-year-old environmentalist, I wasn’t ready to resign myself to life behind a desk. I knew I was looking in the right place when a friend’s suggestion led me to the AmeriCorps web site, a promised land for feel-good, hands-on work.

AmeriCorps is sometimes described as the domestic Peace Corps; it consists of a year of community service in fields such as education, housing, environment, and public health. Participants receive a monthly living stipend and earn a $4,700 education award for each year of service, up to two years. And please note: the Corps in AmeriCorps, like that of the Marines, is pronounced core, as in apple, not corpse, as in dead guy.

I was already familiar with non-military national service through my dad’s involvement with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), the precursor to AmeriCorps. In fact, hanging in the hallway of my San Francisco apartment is a VISTA recruiting poster I had framed, an item salvaged from the scrap heap of my dad’s home office. It features a black and white photo of a man, head lowered, carrying a doctor’s bag down an empty dirt road. Below is a caption that trumpets the need for physicians in rural America, and below that, in big, black capital letters, is the phrase, “IF YOU’RE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION, YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.” The scene is Marianna, Arkansas, 1971, and the man is my father.

Fortunately, America’s needs are diverse, and the scenes of environmental restoration I saw on the WSP web site were not so forlorn. Looking at photos of people snorkeling in crystal-clear redwood streams in search of endangered salmon species, I thought, If this counts as national service, sign me up.

Six months later, I had a new understanding of restoration. If I had to pick one photo to put on a poster, it would be this: I’m standing at the bottom of a ravine looking up at a 40-foot redwood log suspended in mid-air two stories overhead. A dozen or so members of the California Conservation Corps (CCC) and I are puzzling over this behemoth, trying to find a way to gently lower it to the water’s edge using a web of winches, levers, steel cables, and hand tools with names like grip hoist, clevice, and pork chop (the last a favorite of mine).

Once in place, CCC members (aka Corpsmembers) will use 24-inch drill bits to bore holes in the log, nearby trees, boulders, or bedrock. Finally, it will all be fastened together with steel bolts, clamps, cables, and a space-age adhesive—all to provide habitat for young salmon that are struggling to survive in the degraded stream.

It’s a good day for watersheds.

That project was an example of my assignments during that first year in WSP: to design, implement, and monitor watershed restoration projects for the California Conservation Corps. My base of operations was the CCC’s residential center in Fortuna, a small town in Humboldt County with a long history of ranching, logging, and fishing. Fortuna calls itself “the Friendly City,” and it’s quintessential Main Street USA, red, white, and blue bunting included. It’s a side of California I had never seen before and otherwise never would have known existed.

This kind of restoration is slow, arduous work, and I often wondered where it would lead. For every hour I spent in-stream, there were twenty more hours spent in a pickup truck, driving to and from project sites, scanning the sides of national forest roads for salvage logs while listening to country music. Then there were the days spent drawing diagrams on a computer, writing proposals, and waiting for project money to arrive. For years after a project is completed, Watershed Stewards and Corpsmembers will walk the stream mile after mile, day after day, collecting data on how those projects are working. Even when things go right it’ll be a generation or more before anybody knows if it was enough to bring back the salmon.

But on this day, watching the transformation of a few field sketches into actual, physical structures, I felt a part of something real—a serious and dedicated effort to fix things through projects that involve many people’s everyday lives and careers. I felt I knew something about this part of the planet—why the river moves as it does, what it looks like when it’s degraded, how the water feels when the stream is healthy, and how it supports the salmon—the keystone species for an entire ecosystem.

I got the same feeling of connection during the anatomy lesson at the San Francisco Friends School. As I was carefully moving the scalpel through the insides of the steelhead pointing out organs and describing their functions, a student to my left turned to me and said, “I want to be a fish biologist when I grow up.” I was stunned that a second grader could even conceive of such a job, and it gave me hope.

Personal connections like these comprise some of my most vivid memories of the program. Connections with corpsmembers like Mike—I don’t know his last name—but when he’s not gripping logs, he goes by B-Ready and sits in the Fortuna center’s computer lab making music. Even now, his song “Sometimes You Gotta Go”—a rap ballad about the death of loved ones—is still on my iPod where it’s been since he put it there the night before my grandmother died. I left for her funeral the next day.

The other connections I made are with green-minded folks of all ages from all corners of the country—Indiana, Hawaii, Alaska, Georgia, Washington, Massachusetts—and some are still my closest friends. Many are locals, especially recent graduates of Humboldt State University. Some blindly set out from home with only what they could pack in their car, or in a single backpack. Some come from big cities and suddenly find themselves waking up in towns amounting to little more than a school and a picnic table full of locals sitting in front of a trailer posing as a general store.

When I signed on for a second year, I met William F. “Zeke” Grader, executive director of the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), a San Francisco nonprofit. Zeke is one of the most influential voices in fisheries law and salmon protection, and he exemplifies the professional development aspect of WSP. With an affinity for Che Guevara, lutefisk, and Scarlett, his floppy, blond-haired cocker spaniel, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of court battles reaching back decades, and he’s the go-to guy for reporters on a wide range of topics, from the price of crab to mega-million-dollar water bonds. It was under Zeke’s tutelage that I made the professional connections that led to my current job, organizing against privatization of the nation’s commercial fisheries.

Salmon restoration and fish conservation in general remain a prominent part of my identity. Salmon have become a conduit to the natural world for me—a representation of wildness, ecological wellness, and the cycles of life and death. In the hallway of my apartment, next to the VISTA poster, hangs a seven-foot salmon costume from the 2006 Bay to Breakers race in which thirty or so similarly clad spawners and I made our way upstream against the human current of runners.

Whenever I ponder the future of California salmon, I think of the second-grader who wants to be a fish biologist. I think of that pregnant steelhead that never got to lay her eggs but nevertheless managed to spawn a new generation of fish folk. With any luck, that student will one day find himself following a WSP mentor through the creeks of Northern California, field partner at his side, bringing the salmon home.

The AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project accepts applications in the fall of each year. See for more information.

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