The historic rain and snowfall in December brought a long list of positive milestones for the wildlife of Northern California. One section of wildlife which is sure to experience massive gains over the coming years from the precipitation is salmon, which will use the early-winter water to make the journey to their historic spawning grounds typically halted by man-made obstacles and lack of water.
In Marin County, coho salmon sightings are being reported in small creeks that have been recently devastated by drought. Ayano Hayes, the watershed biologist for the Salmon Protection And Watershed Network (SPAWN), has found coho salmon this year in Montezuma Creek, Larsen Creek, Arroyo Creek and Woodacre Creek so far this year.
According to SPAWN’s records, no coho have been seen in Montezuma Creek since the winter of 2004, and none in Larsen Creek since winter 2006, where Hayes saw both coho salmon and steelhead trout this week. Following an 18-year absence, the coho salmon are back.
“It is amazing to see these giant two-foot fish in the small creeks, some no wider than than six feet wide,” said Hayes. “This is extremely exciting and is the result of big storms that have let coho salmon maneuver through culverts under roads that are a barrier to migration under lower flows.”
Coho spawning season occurs during December and January each year. For these salmon to reach their historic spawning grounds, it’s not just about total rainfall – they need to see a lot of rain in a short period of time. Heavy rain in the early winter months allow fish to jump into and swim through artificial culverts that concentrate flow and increase velocity. It has to be a perfect storm.
In the 1990’s, coho salmon and steelhead were seen frequently in the San Geronimo Bay of Marin County. In fact, the number of spawning coho salmon used to peak in the thousands each year. Now, it’s very rare to spot these fish in a natural setting. Non-profit organizations like SPAWN are hoping to create public policy to bring back the salmon to NorCal waterways.
SPAWN completed the removal of a dam on the former San Geronimo Valley golf course last year, allowing salmon to migrate into the upper watershed more easily.
“It was a joy to see coho spawning in the newly completed restoration project site during the planting events we held with volunteers throughout December,” said Audrey Fusco, SPAWN’s plant ecologist and nursery manager.
Removal of the dam, coupled with the heavy storms in December, allowed Chinook salmon— also called King salmon—to Woodacre Creek. Chinook salmon are a larger salmon species considered more of a “river” spawning fish and normally spawn earlier. These fish spawn in lower Lagunitas Creek closer to Point Reyes Station where the creek is wider and deeper, and not dependent on early rains to open up its spawning grounds.
This year can be celebrated as a success by salmon conservationists, but there is still plenty of work to be done to ensure coho salmon don’t go extinct in the region. Video’s online show the salmon practically crawling up shallow creeks to reach their spawning grounds. Much more will need to be done to allow for large coho salmon runs in these shrinking waterways.
“We can bring back the salmon of Marin from the brink of extinction if we care enough to protect and restore habitat,” said Todd Steiner, the founder of SPAWN and its executive director. “We have the know-how and the State and federal agencies have offered the resources. It boils down to our local elected officials having the courage to enact the regulations that will protect the habitat the fish need to survive for our children and grandchildren.”