California drought threatens coho salmon with extinction
January 28, 2014
SF Gate by Peter Firmrite
The lack of rain this winter could eventually be disastrous for thirsty California, but the drought may have already ravaged some of the most storied salmon runs on the West Coast.
The coho salmon of Central California, which swim up the rivers and creeks during the first winter rains, are stranded in the ocean waiting for the surge of water that signals the beginning of their annual migration, but it may never come.
All the creeks between the Golden Gate and Monterey Bay are blocked by sand bars because of the lack of rain, making it impossible for the masses of salmon to reach their native streams and create the next generation of coho. The endangered coho could go extinct over much of their range if they do not spawn this year, according to biologists.
"It may already be too late," said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The Central Coast coho could be gone south of the Golden Gate."
The situation is bad even in the one place fish can get upstream, in West Marin County. Very few coho have been seen in Lagunitas Creek, long considered a bellwether of salmon health in the region, according to Eric Ettlinger, the aquatic ecologist for the Marin Municipal Water District.
Attempt to lure the coho
The dire situation prompted the district to release 29 million gallons of valuable drinking water from Kent Lake early this month in an effort to lure the coho into the watershed, which winds 33 miles through the redwood- and oak-studded San Geronimo Valley on the northwest side of Mount Tamalpais.
Watershed biologists in Marin have counted only 57 coho redds, the word scientists use for the clusters of pink eggs that salmon lay in the gravel. That's "exceptionally low for mid-January," Ettlinger wrote in his weekly spawning update. More than 100 redds were counted last January in Lagunitas Creek, where many thousands of fish once spawned until seven dams were built in the watershed to supply Marin with drinking water.
Swimming for their lives
January 25, 2014
Recordnet.com by Alex Breitler, Staff Writer
More than 20,000 salmon splashed up San Joaquin Valley streams to spawn last year, a relatively robust return that you'd think would bode well for future populations.
But now biologists are worried that the offspring of those fish will not survive, because there's simply not enough water to flush the babies back downstream toward the ocean.
And if they don't make it out alive, that means fewer adult salmon returning to our rivers three years down the road.
It's a problem faced by wildlife managers up and down parched California. Salmon have survived droughts like this for millennia, but only in the past century did dams block access to hundreds of miles of cold-water streams that once provided a kind of refuge for fish during dry times.
Officials managing the Mokelumne River are considering trapping the young fish, putting them in tanker trucks and transporting them downstream past the Delta, perhaps releasing them somewhere around Sherman Island.
That strategy is not unheard of, but it does show how concerned experts are about the salmon's survival.
California's Pot Farms Could Leave Salmon Runs Truly
January 13, 2014
By Alastair Bland, The Salt
For many users and advocates of marijuana, the boom in the West Coast growing industry may be all good and groovy. But in California, critics say the recent explosion of the marijuana industry along the state's North Coast — a region called the "emerald triangle" — could put a permanent buzz kill on struggling salmon populations.
The problem? According to critics, marijuana plantations guzzle enormous amounts of water while also spilling pesticides, fertilizers and stream-clogging sediments into waterways, including the Eel and the Klamath rivers, that have historically produced large numbers of Chinook salmon and related species.
"The whole North Coast is being affected by these pot growers," says Dave Bitts, a Humboldt County commercial fisherman and the president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
"I have nothing against people growing dope," he says, "but if you do, we want you to grow your crop in a way that doesn't screw up fish habitat. There is no salmon-bearing watershed at this point that we can afford to sacrifice."
Growers of marijuana often withdraw water directly from small streams and use up to 6 gallons per day per plant during the summer growing season, says Scott Bauer, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"When you have 20,000 or 30,000 plants in a watershed, that is a lot of water," Bauer says.
But marijuana growers are undeservedly taking the blame for a problem that is caused by all residents of the North Coast, argues Kristin Nevedal, a founding chairperson with the Emerald Growers Association.
New fish ladder to boost Coho spawning in Graton creek
January 9, 2014
By Guy Kovner, The Press Democrate
As soon as it rains, coho salmon likely will swim up a small creek to a spawning ground in the west Sonoma County hills that has been impassable to the species for decades.
When they come to the culvert where Purrington Creek flows under Graton Road about 3 miles southwest of Graton, the endangered coho will get a boost, literally, from a concrete fish ladder set in the narrow streambed.
The $366,000 project, completed by Sonoma County crews in November, will make it “easy for even the weakest fish” to reach a nearly mile-long stretch of the creek upstream from the culvert, said Luke Walton, a hydraulic engineer who designed the project.
It's the latest improvement in a two-decade, multimillion-dollar effort to improve Sonoma County coho habitat and restore the population of a prized wild fish that once flourished along the North Coast but teetered near extinction in 2000.
Up to 500,000 coho spawned in Northern California rivers in the 1940s, dwindling to about 5,000 by the mid-1990s.
Purrington Creek, a rare year-round waterway, flows into Green Valley Creek, the last of the streams in the 1,485-square-mile Russian River watershed known to support a significant coho population.
“Purrington's got a lot of good things going for it,” said Derek Acomb, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife planner for the local watershed.
A 2003 study of 125 stream crossings at Sonoma County roads identified the concrete box culvert under Graton Road as a “high-priority” obstacle to the coho, which swim up to 150 miles from the ocean to lay eggs in gravel streambeds.
Purrington was on a “short list” of fish passage problems, but it took years to secure the funding for a fix, Acomb said.
Enabling coho to swim through the culvert will open up 4,700 feet of potential spawning habitat in the midst of an 887-acre watershed.
Drought Could Push Endangered Salmon to the Brink
January 8, 2014
By Joe Rosato Jr., NBC Bay Area News,
Biologist Preston Brown scampered down the rocks of the creek bank in Samuel P. Taylor State Park in West Marin County, stepping gingerly toward the water’s edge.
The creek was known as the “ink wells” because it resembled a series of hollowed-out bowls leading up stream. In a normal year, federally-endangered Coho salmon will leap from bowl to bowl on their way upstream to their spawning grounds. But this year’s lack of rain has made that same journey a harrowing venture.
“Normally this time of year there’s a lot more water running over the falls,” observed Brown, a watershed biologist with the environmental group S.P.A.W.N.
The Coho’s long, instinctive journey from ocean to birthing ground is triggered by rain – winter rains also fill in the creeks and streams making the passage easier.
Brown said this year, his group hasn’t recorded a single fish on the small tributaries that feed the larger creeks.
“They typically are spawning up in the valley this time of year,” Brown said. “But because of the lack of rain, a lot of the tributaries they normally spawn in are not even flowing with water.”
Naturalists point-out salmon have survived droughts in the past. But that was back when their numbers reached the thousands along the warren of meandering creeks and streams of West Marin. Now, their numbers are in the mid-hundreds during a good year.
“Every year the salmon don’t come back is another bad year for the salmon,” said Teri Shore of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “It continues to build toward their extinction unfortunately.”Greg Andrew, the district’s Fishery Program Manager said spotters recorded up to 130 salmon on the main creek in Samuel Taylor State Park so far this year. In a normal year of rain, the number is around 500. Still, he said the increased water flows may be helping.
Andrew said in the last 18 months, the area has received only about 44 inches of rain. He said in a normal year the number is between 52 – 58 inches.
During a walk Tuesday along the creek, Brown spotted a school of five salmon darting in and out of the shadows of a deep pool. A large female salmon was accompanied by several males near her nest, known as a "red." Although the migration usually winds up around January, Brown was hopeful Mother Nature might still turn on the waterworks in time for this year's returning fish.
“Hopefully that can improve over the next few months if we do get some rain,” he said.