Fish Friendly Farming: Where Vineyards and Fish Habitats Intersect

What do fish and wine have in common? Actually, a lot more than the perfect  pairing at your favorite restaurant.

North of San Francisco is the iconic Napa Valley Wine Region. Napa County’s land provides a variety of agricultural uses such as row crops, field crops, orchards, vineyards and livestock grazing lands. However, since 1982 there has been a significant increase in wine grape production, which now provide the highest economic contribution to the agricultural economy of Napa Valley. Approximately 45,201/504,450 (or 8%) acres in the county are devoted to vineyard growing.1

Figure 1: FFF Certification Logo. Photo Credit: Fish Friendly Farming.

Like any form of agriculture, grape growing can impact native species, particularly sensitive fish that rely on clean, healthy streams for habitat. Many people are not aware that federally threatened anadromous species such as Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout are native to the famed wine making region and rely on the coastal rivers and streams for reproduction. Both of these species are considered indicator species, meaning they are sensitive to water quality, quantity, temperature, and turbidity, among other things. The presence (or lack thereof) of these species can give a glimpse of the overall health of the stream environment. Unfortunately, as development and agriculture increased, their numbers declined. In 1968, approximately 12,000 acres of land were growing grapes in Napa Valley. Today that number is over 45,000 acres, although it is said that this is the upper limit of suitable land for vine growth.2 Historical information from the USFWS estimates that runs on the Napa River were between 2,000-4,000 Coho returning to spawn and 6,000-8,000 steelhead. By 1968, Coho were considered to be extirpated from the valley, and it is estimated that there are currently only about 200 Steelhead adults that run in the Napa Valley watershed each year. Additionally, the watershed, which has changed in morphology from pools and riffles to large, deep, warm pools that favor predator species such as largemouth bass.3

Figure 2: North Coast Watershed Map. Photo Credit: Fish Friendly Farming

This is where the concept and development of the Fish Friendly Farming (FFF) program came about. Beginning in 1995, the FFF certification program was created to assist farmers in implementing land management practices that restore and sustain fish habitat on their own property and improve water quality. It is an incentive program that rewards the farmers for practicing good management to protect fish habitat in the long term. FFF visits with farmers to collect information on erosion and native vegetation. They note how well drainage systems are working, how vineyards are winterized, assess roads (conditions and locations as well as presence of any culverts by streams), measure well levels and water quality, and which chemicals are being used on the vines as well as making sure farmers have legal surface water rights (some bodies of water fall under the jurisdiction of the state or local governments). The information that FFF gathers is put into maps and templates that are further reviewed by official government certifiers like the National Marine Fisheries Service and the County Agricultural Commissioner. Then FFF provides Napa farmers with  a detailed list of improvements and a timetable for suggested improvements to their property.

Farmers support this program because it’s based on vetted science and has clear-cut goals. Today, more than 90% of wineries in the Napa Valley have been certified.4 Over time, the program has expanded to include more than 150,000 acres in 10 counties.5

The long-term results of this program remain to be seen. Habitat and species recovery involve more than just adjustments to a small percentage of farmland: they must also include addressing larger scale issues such as climate change, water usage, dam removals and more. However, programs such as Fish Friendly Farming are an innovative solution to improve native fish species persistence without sacrificing another culturally and economically important resource in California.

  1. Napa Valley Vintners. 2020. Ag Land Preservation. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  2. Mobley, Esther. February 18, 2020. Is Napa Valley Running out of Land for Vineyards? Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  3. Napa Valley Watershed Information and Conservation Council. 2020. Fish. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  4. Napa Valley Register. July 9, 2020. Fish Friendly Farming Certifies 90 of Napa’s Vineyards. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
  5. Fish Friendly Farming. 2019. Watersheds and Farms of the North Coast. Retrieved July 19, 2020.

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