Salmon in the Middle - As conservation efforts begin bearing fruit, drought conditions threaten local fisheries
February 13, 2014
The schools of large adult Chinook salmon swimming back and forth in most pools of the lower Mattole River from November to mid-January offered a powerful testament to both the resilience of these remarkable fish and to the challenges they now face in light of climate change and California's pernicious drought.
Many people still remember the dry years of the mid-1970s — especially 1976-77, the driest water year (July 1 through June 30) on record up to now. One bright warm day followed another that winter and the night skies were filled with stars. Loggers complained of having no work-stopping rainy days to give them a little winter's rest. Many smaller creeks and springs simply stopped running as the warm season progressed. Salmon returning in the fall were, like this year, stuck in the pools in lower rivers, increasingly vulnerable to poaching. The rainfall total that year, at 25 inches in the lower Mattole Valley, was then the lowest on record, lower than the dry year of 1929.
Decades later, Humboldt County is coming off its driest December and January ever recorded. Nancy Dean, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Eureka, said this year's two-month total of 1.91 inches has replaced 1976-77 as the lowest combined total for the two months since the National Weather Service began keeping track. And that bleak measurement comes on the heels of last calendar year's anemic rainfall total of 16.6 inches in Eureka — a total that set a new single-year record, coming in more than 23 inches below normal. Stream flow in the Mattole River at its driest in January of 1977 was 89 cubic feet per second (cfs). Comparatively, on the same day in 2014, the flow was just below 54 cfs, a level far more common in late August. Before the rain began falling on Feb. 5, only 6.3 inches of precipitation had been recorded in the lower Mattole since July 1, about 12 percent of seasonal average.
Statewide, the water content of the rapidly waning Sierra snowpack has fallen to 15 percent of normal, forcing officials to cut off water allocations from the State Water Project to local agencies that serve 25 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland throughout the state.
Though the droughts of 1976-77 and 2013-14 are remarkably similar in terms of the timing and amounts of rainfall, changes have taken place since 1977 that affect local watersheds profoundly, making them both more vulnerable to droughts and more resistant to them. In 1977, fewer people inhabited the Humboldt countryside. At the same time, our once-bountiful salmon runs were in rapid decline, victims of over-fishing, habitat damage and two great floods.
A migration of people out of cities and back to the land has combined with the marijuana boom to steadily increase populations in Humboldt's remote watersheds. Deleterious effects on the land, though, and an increased demand for water have been partly balanced by strong commitments to watershed restoration and sustainability on the parts of many newcomers and established ranch families alike.
Thanks to improved freshwater habitat, fairly moist spring seasons and good offshore feeding conditions, the fish have started to respond. Even the great, dam-congested Columbia to the north had its strongest return this year — over 1 million spawners — since 1936.
Locally, the Eel River Project estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 chinook returned to spawn in the river last year. "We had an absolutely banner year in 2012-13," said Patrick Higgins, a biologist working with the project. This year's numbers are below last year's, "but were still good," he said.
Sara Bolock , an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, reports that over 320,000 chinook, the highest number since 1978, returned to spawn in the Klamath in 2012-13. Less than half that — about 140,000 — came back this year, according to Taz Soto, head of the Karuk Tribe fisheries program in the middle Klamath. "Fewer spawners showed up this year, but the run was still better than average," he said.
The Smith River, too, had its banner year recently — in 2011-12 — according to Fish and Wildlife's Justin Garwood.
These improved returns should be providing a sense of hope for the future of salmon. Unfortunately, the river systems they're returning to are wrung almost dry. Fry (very young salmon) hatched out low in the rivers miss the sheltered rearing habitats they normally encounter on their long migrations from headwaters. They'll be more vulnerable to hunger, predation and infestations common in over-warm lower rivers. There is also a danger that, if heavy rains break the drought, high flows could wash eggs or tiny fry out of the mobile gravels that are found in lower rivers.
Reginald Kennedy, hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Eureka, points out that common culprits for extreme weather aren't around this year — no El Niño or La Niña. There is only this "tenacious high pressure ridge" locked firmly over the eastern Pacific from the tip of Baja to northern British Columbia, he said.
Normally, Kennedy said, the high pressure off the coast during the warm months gives way in fall to the powerful low-pressure systems formed in the Gulf of Alaska. Instead, this winter — not unlike in 1976-77 — the low-pressure disturbances are being forced north, "over the top" of the continent and into Canada, where they literally gather cold. The frigid lows then move with a looping jet stream down into the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard, where they've been wreaking havoc. This year's deep freeze in the east is the other face of California's drought.
Gordon Leppig is the newly designated climate change coordinator and long-range planner for Fish and Wildlife on the north coast. Leppig, an avowed optimist, said in a recent interview that, "while it's impossible to point to any one weather event such as the drought and say, 'It's climate change,' this event fits all the predicted patterns: more intense, faster-moving droughts; less snowpack; lower springs and stream flows; extreme danger from wildfire."
Leppig's office is enjoined with the task of figuring how to reduce emissions in all areas of Fish and Wildlife resource management. At the same time, as a long-range planner in a drought-prone environment, he has to be concerned about land-use practices that impact water. He posed an old question for Californians, now newly urgent: "Is there enough water for agriculture, domestic use and for fish?"
In other words, we are facing new challenges to the coexistence of people and salmon just at a time when salmon seem to be showing signs of recovery. Can we adapt to these realities? Can salmon? Leppig painted an ominous picture. "Current research shows that if present population trends continue," he said, "we should anticipate 78 percent of California's 32 distinct native salmonid populations will likely be extinct within the next century."
While the rains that commenced earlier this month proved a welcome relief in our parched communities, Todd Flackus, a research analyst with the Department of Water Resources, said they do not impact California's drought status. "Even if we had above-average rainfall for the rest of February and March, we'd still be behind."
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.
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.
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.