By

Alastair Bland
About the author

A native to San Francisco, Alastair Bland is a freelance journalist who writes about water policy in California, rivers and salmon, marine conservation and climate change. His work has appeared at NPR.org, Smithsonian.com, Yale Environment 360 and News Deeply, among many other outlets. When he isn't writing, Alastair is likely riding his bicycle uphill as fast as he can.

Articles by Alastair Bland

Kayaking to Hawaii

After a French-American resident of Larkspur helped row a small boat from Monterey to Hawaii in 2016, he vowed he’d never undertake such a journey again. But Cyril Derreumaux spoke too soon. “My imagination took off, and I started dreaming about doing the same trip again in a kayak,” he says. Now, after several years of planning, Derreumaux is getting ready to embark. He plans to leave Monterey Bay in a custom-made kayak with no companions in late May and,...
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As agencies wrangle over how best to protect the Delta’s dwindling native fish species, researchers want to see more consideration to the needs of the estuary’s birds.

 “If we want to restore the ecology of the Delta, we can’t just be looking in the water,” says Kristen E. Dybala of Point Blue Conservation Science. In a paper published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Dybala and two co-authors make the case that “birds and their habitat needs are often not addressed in science syntheses, conservation planning, and large-scale restoration initiatives in the Delta.” While some birds use the same sloughs and channels that support such high-profile...
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As organizations and agencies scramble to preserve the Central Valley’s dwindling Chinook salmon runs, a group of scientists believes they may be overlooking a key factor in the decades-long decline of the fish: disease.

In a paper published in September’s issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, a research team proposes that diseases—caused by viruses, bacteria and other microbes—could be suppressing juvenile salmon survival in a river system that once hosted millions of adult spawners each year. According to tracking studies, nearly all juvenile Chinook born from natural spawning die before they reach the Golden Gate Bridge; habitat enhancement efforts have failed to mitigate this mortality rate. Short-term studies of Central Valley salmon...
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Spawning and rearing habitat for important forage-fish species in San Francisco Bay apparently shifts geographically by many miles depending on how much freshwater is flowing into the Estuary.

In a recent study, a team of scientists found that in a dry year, Pacific herring and longfin smelt larvae occurred farther up the Estuary than in a wet year, when spawning and recruitment was pushed seaward. The results suggest that the fish have broader geographic ranges than previously believed, a finding that could inform efforts to manage and protect their habitat. Biologists have long assumed that longfin smelt, a protected species in steep decline for decades, spawn strictly in...
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Science in Short ~ Podcast

David Ayers: How Fish Interact with Wetlands Topography  In this podcast, Estuary News reporter Alastair Bland and UC Davis PhD student and fish researcher David Ayers discuss the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, its fish, its marshlands, its flows, and its future. Ayers explains the focus of his research, which seeks to reveal how underwater topography in the wetlands fringing the estuary affects interactions between predators and small fish. While restoration projects often focus on adding more water to this ecosystem and...
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Trolling for Salmon by Kayak

Whales scare us much more than sharks. They erupt from the ocean with a rush of displaced water and a poof of air. A collision could be disastrous. “Whale – go-go-go!” I shout. We pedal double-time to dodge the humpback, behind us and approaching from the left. A moment later it surfaces again, with another poof, now off to our right, moving away. We relax and slow back to our standard trolling speed of about 2.5 miles per hour, and...
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By looking solely at the results of a single annual fish-counting survey, Californians may be seeing an incomplete reflection of Bay-Delta fish population trends.

A team of scientists analyzed 14 survey programs carried out by state and federal agencies, as well as UC Davis, and concluded that employing such a diverse variety of long-term surveys is essential for accurately tracking and assessing the overall health of San Francisco Estuary’s ecosystem and its resident fishes. The research is described in the June issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. Lead author Dylan Stompe, of UC Davis, explains that the research arose from concerns that...
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A unique adaptive behavioral trait that may once have helped winter-run Chinook salmon thrive in the Sacramento River system could now be working against the fish as they face extinction.

The trait – which cues fish when to spawn based on water temperature – isn’t syncing up with current conditions in the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam. A paper published in the June issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, reports that cooler springtime river temperatures seem to prompt earlier winter-run spawning while warmer temperatures push back the peak spawning period by a week or two. Under historic conditions, when winter-run Chinook spawned in high-elevation streams now inaccessible to...
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More than half the water diverted from Central Valley rivers is used to irrigate cattle-feed crops, implicating beef and dairy as top drivers of recent fish declines.

Recent findings, published in Nature Sustainability in March, strengthen the environmental arguments for going vegan while rewriting the familiar narrative that almonds and other high-value tree crops are the top hogs of Central Valley water resources. The study’s authors, led by Brian Richter of Virginia-based Sustainable Waters, focused on the arid West and found that irrigated crops like alfalfa and hay, more than any others, are drying out rivers. The reduced flows are pushing dozens of fish species toward extinction....
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Retreat or Fight for Coastal Communities?

In the coastal getaway town of Stinson Beach, king tides and storm surges regularly put roads and parking lots underwater: wintertime events that give locals an unnerving idea of what rising sea level will look like for the small community. “We know sea-level rise is coming, but here, we say we’ve already got it,” says Stinson Beach homeowner Jeff Loomans, also the president of the Greater Farallones Association, which has been active in sea-level rise planning. Rising sea level is...
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A new project should dramatically improve conditions for endangered steelhead trout in the lower reaches of Alameda Creek.

The project is part of a long-term effort to restore steelhead to Alameda Creek. Last year, for the first time in decades, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission began releasing water from a newly retrofitted dam, effectively reviving an important tributary stream. Also in 2019, the Alameda County Flood Control District began construction of a key fish ladder at the BART line crossing that will allow adult steelhead to access the river’s headwaters. The new fish passage enhancement plan focuses...
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New archaeological evidence from the South Bay strengthens the case that Chinook salmon spawned naturally in the Guadalupe River.

Albion Environmental, a Santa Cruz research consulting firm, and researchers from Santa Clara University analyzed thousands of fish bones excavated from a 19th century indigenous village on Mission Creek, a historical Guadalupe River tributary long since buried under modern urban development. In an abstract of their research, which has not yet been published, the authors describe using DNA sequencing on 55 confirmed salmonid bones. They identified 52 as belonging to steelhead trout and three as Chinook salmon. Whether Chinook occurred...
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Urchinomics

By Alastair Bland As purple urchins have multiplied, kelp forests, already stressed by unusually warm water, have collapsed. Norwegian company Urchinomics proposes to capture the overpopulated urchins, fatten them up in circulating seawater tanks, and sell them to restaurants—hopefully in volumes sufficient to dent the urchin armies and allow a kelp comeback. Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary press liaison MaryJane Schramm says combatting the urchin takeover “goes directly to our mandate to maintain or restore ecosystem balance.” Citizen science, she...
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Dam Tweaks Yield Results

By Alastair Bland “After one year of flows, we’re seeing lots of rainbow trout,” says Brian Sak of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). For the first time ever, cold water is flowing steadily through Calaveras Dam in southern Alameda County, and into the creek canyon below. The return of rainbow trout to Calaveras Creek marks a milestone in an ongoing, multi-agency restoration of Alameda Creek, which drains more than 600 square miles of the East Bay. Since the...
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Where have all the Herring Gone?

Pete has fished San Francisco Bay for nearly all of his 60 years. A lifelong San Francisco resident who keeps his last name to himself, he recalls herring runs in the 1970s the likes of which rarely, if ever, occur anymore. “I remember herring spawns that went from Oyster Point all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge,” says Pete, a former commercial fisherman, referring to the point near Brisbane. He also remembers massive spawns that stretched contiguously from the...
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Scarce Shark Tough to Tag

Basking sharks were once so abundant along the California coast that a thrill-seeking trophy hunter reportedly harpooned a half-dozen in under three hours in Monterey Bay. That was in 1947. Today, the big fish are so rare that it’s taken a team of scientists between San Diego and Santa Cruz eight years to put tracking tags into just six animals. Their numbers are so low, in fact, that researchers, working with tiny sample sizes, can scarcely study them at all...
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Next Day Delivery: PCBs, Plastics, and Mercury All in One Package

By Alastair Bland The slow, downstream chemical migration of legacy contaminants like mercury and PCBs into the Bay is something that Lester McKee and his colleagues at the San Francisco Estuary Institute hope to cut short. Using funding from the Regional Monitoring Program, they’ve been sampling creeks that enter the central and southern San Francisco Bay for years, identifying the most contaminated waterways. “We want to short-circuit the conveyor belt that delivers the pollutants we’re concerned about into the food...
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Kris Tjernell thinks there could hardly be more a more exciting time to be leading conservation and water management programs in the country’s most populous and perhaps most water-stressed state.

“I see opportunities for big change,” says Tjernell, who was appointed California Department of Water Resources’ deputy director last May. At the time the DWR was adopting a new approach toward land and water management—especially the inclusion of floodplain restoration in many of its flood control projects. “We are demanding a lot out of the landscape of the Delta, and we are demanding a lot out of the Central Valley and beyond,” Tjernell says, describing a system of resource allocation...
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Widening Gyre of Ocean Challenges

By Alastair Bland Last year, researches working with SF State’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center installed an array of instruments to track underwater parameters. John Largier, a UC Davis professor of oceanography, says he expects clear trends and patterns indicative of warming and acidifying waters to become apparent in the data in about a decade. With nations making painfully slow progress in reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases, Largier thinks local efforts to boost the resiliency of the Bay ecosystem...
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For the first time ever, an annual fish-counting survey has turned up zero Delta smelt—a dire milestone in Bay Area aquatic biology.

This does not mean the fish is extinct—yet—but it does mean that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem is in disarray. The species, which lives its entire life in the estuary, is a key ecological indicator—and it was prolific until just a couple of decades ago. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall Midwater Trawl survey, which provides an annual index on abundance for several fish species in the Delta, the Delta smelt index generally averaged several hundred fish...
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