As a 10-year-old in the early ‘80s, Gio Martorana fished in Grape Creek, a tributary of Dry Creek in the Russian River Watershed in Sonoma that runs near acres of Chardonnay and Zinfandel vineyards his parents started maintaining in 1983.
“We’d see Coho salmon and steelhead trout,” said Martorana as he walked Grape Creek on a rainy November day, recalling the trips he’d make from San Francisco to Sonoma until 2004 when he and his family founded Martorana Family Winery. “Slowly it seemed like they were going away and I started to pay attention.”
Martorana Family Winery won the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agency’s 2014 Stewardship Award for watershed restoration.
“Last year, the award went to a cattle rancher from South Dakota on 50,000 acres,” said Martorana.
Steelhead and Coho are threatened and endangered. Creeks such as Grape Creek had degraded to uninhabitable for fish to play out their natural life cycle: grow to fry that instinctively hide, brave river currents, learn to school together, and lay their eggs in clean gravels, along with many other survival skills until they are old enough to migrate and return to reproduce.
When adult fish have finished growing in the ocean, they then swim back to the rivers in which they originally came. In 2014, no fish were released at all in Grape Creek at all.
Now a 30-foot fan moves air into the vineyards to prevent frost from freezing this years new growing vines instead of being hosed down with creek water. Other restoration features include weirs, which allow water to flow at an optimum level that provides a safe haven for fish returning and creating deeper pools. When they swim back from the Russian River and Pacific, the fish more efficiently reenter their home on a new fish ladder. Replanted native brush cradles the environment fish need to thrive in.
Martorana wasn’t an expert in environmentalism or watershed restoration. He’d done college projects on steelheads at Muir Woods and The Headwaters Project in college, and never thought his interest would make the difference that it has in balancing the needs of the wine-making economy and the environment.
“I learned as I went on,” said Martorana. “Watershed by watershed, you create a healthier system.”