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Eating totem salmon: exploring extinction and collaborative restoration in a coastal California watershed community
Wild Pacific salmon populations are declining throughout California. To strengthen applied salmonid restoration ecology, increased watershed-based understandings of socio-cultural issues thwarting recovery efforts are needed. This study explored perceptions of viabilities of threatened Mattole River salmonids and feelings concerning current human-fish interactions among local residents and fishermen. This qualitative research employed a social constructivist framework and phenomenological orientation. Narrative empirical evidence from lived experience is presented in conjunction with semi-structured interview data from watershed residents, salmon restorationists, poachers, and catch and release fishermen. While many perceive that Mattole coho salmon are facing extinction and consider Chinook salmon’s future nearly as tenuous, a minority of residents believe that Mattole River salmon are abundant. The latter approve and defend salmon poaching, whereas the majority strongly condemns it. Feelings are modulated by perceived threats to the fish runs, and by local identity. Poaching is justified through use of certain neutralization techniques, primarily condemnation of the local nonprofit salmon organization, and claims of local entitlement. The ways people view restoration efforts, poaching, and catch and release fishing in the Mattole River are affected by socio-cultural influences, which constitute barriers to collaborative restoration. Joint fact-finding and listening are among recommendations for trust-building techniques designed to increase recognition of the shared desire for abundant salmon and foster civic response to poaching. The major aim of this research is to inspire improved collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts to address the more significant challenges to salmon recovery, in the Mattole River and beyond.