Extreme drought threatens central California coast's coho salmon (+video)
February 11, 2014
By Gloria Goodale, The Christian Science Monitor
California’s drought is making life hard for the state’s salmon population and may soon claim at least one entire species as victim.
The California Coast coho salmon relies on the small creeks and streams flowing into the ocean along the coast for its life cycle. With most of these outlets depleted and with sandbars growing at the river mouths because of lack of runoff from the snow packs in the mountains to the east, the tiny hatchlings cannot get to the ocean nor can the adults make their way back upstream to spawn.
Heavy rainfall over the weekend sent water coursing through many of these blocked river mouths, but wildlife officials say this is a drop in the bucket compared with the overall need.
“Recent rain, while good, isn’t enough,” says Jordan Traverso, spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in an e-mail. According to the Department of Water Resources, she notes, “we would need it to rain heavily every other day through the end of May to reach average precipitation.”
Many of the state’s salmon populations were already in trouble before the current drought conditions, says Ms. Traverso. The coho population had already plunged from some 56,000 in the 1960s to roughly 500 adults in 2009. The population now hovers in the low thousands, according to a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service, reported in the Los Angeles Times.
Though monitoring data are still coming in, this year’s salmon cohort looks to be at-risk as well, says Traverso. “The drought is putting further stress on the situation,” she says.
Still, planning efforts over the past decade have put important safeguards in place. Hatcheries have focused on bringing fish in from the wild into three facilities in the central coast.“We have a lot of staff monitoring conditions,” says Traverso, adding that hatcheries will have a role in rebuilding recreational fisheries adversely affected by the drought. They will also have a role in rebuilding at-risk fisheries.
Aside from California's duty to protect salmon and steelhead for their intrinsic value to the people of the state, which includes traditional tribal uses, “salmon is a huge, multimillion-dollar industry" here, Traverso notes.
The state has many choices about water management, says John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “We have tens of thousands of jobs hanging in the balance,” he says, depending on the decisions made about how to manage water in the state.
“I don’t see this as human beings being pitted against fish,” he says, because this industry affects so many people’s livelihoods. In this state, everything from the large commercial interests to the local marinas and bait-and-tackle shops are impacted, he says.
“This is really a balancing act between one set of human needs and another,” he adds.
To protect the salmon industry from further depletion, wildlife officials last week closed all coastal streams from recreational fishing, leaving small shops such as Gualala Sport and Tackle high and dry. Barbara McDaniel, who has worked at the shop for the past two years, says sales have been way down. The store is just across the street from the mouth of the Gualala River, which was bursting at its banks over the weekend.
"It was amazing,” says Ms. McDaniel, who says she watched as fast, dirty water from the heavy rains broke through the built-up sand berms at the mouth of the river.
But the rivers will remain closed to recreational fishing, at least until April, she says.
“We are getting a lot of calls,” she says, “and I have to tell them the river won’t open for fishing.”
Rain Helping Local Creeks, Endangered Fish Populations
February 11, 2014
By Jacqueline Tualla, KION News
Many fish on the Central Coast haven't been able to migrate because it has been so dry. But the rainfall over the last several days has actually helped the steelhead trout and Coho salmon populations.
Scott Creek near Davenport finally saw water flowing through its mouth Sunday morning. It was bare before the rain, two months behind schedule.
"We're normally opened up in December, so fish for the first time now have had the opportunity to move upstream," said Joseph Kiernan, a research fisheries biologist for National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz.
Every day, he and his crew track the steelhead and Coho salmon populations. Monday was the first time the creek level touched far above their ankles, where it had been.
"These fish have been captured in the box here, so we're just taking them out and placing them in this temporary holding bin and then from here they're going to go on the length board," Kiernan said.
Just today, they caught three of the first wild steelhead of the year making their way to spawn.
After tagging the fish, the crew released them, so they can finally migrate.
"The fact that we were able to catch three fish this morning suggests to me that probably a lot more came in because they could've also went over the main stem so that's hopefully good news," said Sean Hayes, research fisheries biologist for National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz.
Even though the rain has helped the creeks significantly, it's still hard to tell how things could look a month from now if the Central Coast doesn't get more rain.
The researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how many fish came through, but estimate between 10 to 30 came since Sunday night. They check the creek at least least once a day and often two to three times a day during high weather conditions to keep the trap maintained.
The fish are tagged with chips as juveniles, so even if they got past the traps the researchers can still figure out if they returned. That could take a few days for them to figure out.
Steelhead populations spawn from January all the way into April locally. Coho is a big concern in the short term with the drought. Their spawning season has a very short time window.
Lagunitas Creek Spawner Update
February 10, 2014
By Eric Ettlinger, Aquatic Biologist, Marin Municipal Water District
It’s been an exciting couple of weeks in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. In my last update I described how coho salmon spawning had unexpectedly jumped up (so to speak) following a tiny bit of wet weather on January 30. Another small rain event followed that survey, coinciding with an increase in water releases by MMWD, and more spawning ensued. Over three long and wet days last week MMWD biologists surveyed most of Lagunitas Creek, and finished the uppermost section of creek this morning. In total we counted 118 coho salmon and 56 new coho redds. We also counted 118 salmon during the previous week, but it’s difficult to say how much of this coincidence was due to counting the same fish twice. To date we’ve seen 349 coho and 161 coho redds. This is an increase over three years ago, but still far less than the large coho run we were expecting.
The other big news was, of course, the enormous amount of rain we received. Since Friday the Kent Lake rain gage has recorded over 11 inches of rain, while the gage at the top of Mount Tamalpais recorded over 21 inches! This has helped our water supply situation and has finally allowed salmon to swim into the tributaries. Flows are still too high and turbid to conduct surveys, but later this week we’ll be investigating how many salmon survived both drought and flood to return to these creeks at last.
Thousands of steelhead die in marsh
February 10, 2014
By Clay Lambert, Half Moon Bay Review
The president of a South Coast conservation group says weekend rains brought tainted water into the Pescadero Marsh, killing thousands of steelhead trout and other species. Steve Simms says it is a predictable rite of winter and he’s extremely frustrated with the bureaucracy that allows it to happen year after year.
The problem is that chemicals toxic to fish are stirred up by the same heavy rains that eventually open the mouth of the Butano Creek to the ocean. Fish essentially suffocate in the nutrient-rich water. It’s been happening almost regularly since 1998 and local residents have been pleading with myriad state officials to solve a problem that comes to a head on government land.
“If this were a private landowner, he’d be in jail,” Simms said on Monday. Simms is president of the Coastal Alliance for Species Enhancement.
Simms and others bagged about 100 dead steelhead over the weekend and he says other volunteers found 200 more. He suggested that is probably only 10 percent of the total die-off over the weekend.
Almost a year ago, a panel of scientists met in Half Moon Bay to begin a systemic study of the ecological problems of the marsh. Simms said he is frustrated by the progress of that group.
“They want to study it and study it and study it,” he said. “How many more years before the Butano population is gone?”
Drought blocking passages to sea for California coho salmon
February 10, 2014
By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
By now, water would typically be ripping down Scott Creek, and months ago it should have burst through a berm of sand to provide fish passage between freshwater and the ocean.
Instead, young coho salmon from this redwood and oak-shaded watershed near Santa Cruz last week were swirling around idly in a lagoon. There has been so little rain that sand has blocked the endangered fish from leaving for the ocean or swimming upstream to spawn.
Scott Creek is one of dozens of streams across California where parched conditions have put fish in immediate danger. With the drought, stream flows have been so low that even months into winter, sandbars have remained closed and waters so shallow that many salmon have had their migratory journeys obstructed.
To prevent further stress to salmon and steelhead, state wildlife officials have closed dozens of rivers and streams to fishing, including all coastal streams west of California 1. A storm that soaked parts of Northern California over the weekend should offer a short respite, but experts say streams like Scott Creek will need several inches of rain a week to stay open and connected to the ocean.
Nowhere is the situation more pressing than on California's North and Central Coast, where a population of only a few thousand coho salmon were already teetering on the edge of extinction.
"This is the first animal that will feel the impacts of the drought," said Jonathan Ambrose, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who stood at the sand-blocked mouth of Scott Creek to offer his assessment Wednesday. "It's going to take a lot of rain to bust this thing open. And if they can't get in by the end of February or March, they're gone."
Historically, hundreds of thousands of Central California Coast coho salmon started and ended their lives in creeks that flow from coastal mountains and redwood forests to the coast from Humboldt County to Santa Cruz.
Of those that remain, most at risk are coho salmon from about a dozen streams on the southern end of the species' range in North America. If not for a small hatchery near the town of Davenport keeping the population going and genetically viable, coho salmon would probably already be long gone south of the Golden Gate.
The Central Coast population of coho has plummeted from about 56,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 500 returning adults in 2009. Over the last several years it has hovered around a few thousand, according to estimates from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The population was listed as federally threatened in 1996 and reclassified as endangered in 2005. A 2012 federal plan estimated its recovery could take 50 to 100 years and cost about $1.5 billion.
"Coho are the fish that are really in trouble in the state right now," said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"Right now, they're cut off in many of the streams. They're stuck in pools," Lehr said. "As we move deeper into this drought, every life stage is going to suffer increased mortality."
It's not only Central Coast salmon that are in peril.
To the North, on Siskiyou County's Scott River, more than 2,600 coho salmon returned this winter to spawn — the highest number since 2007 — but they encountered so little water they weren't able to reach nine-tenths of tributaries to spawn, said Preston Harris, executive director of the Scott River Water Trust.