Volunteers, DFG return Coho to Salmon Creek

300 Spawners Released In Resoration Bid

By George Snyder, Sonoma West Staff Writer (12/17/08)

SALMON CREEK – Up until a few days ago the last time anybody spotted salmon in Salmon Creek was back in the mid 1990’s, when the fish finally succumbed to habitat destruction and drought.

This being an era of promised change, however, the dozen or so biologists, volunteers and the local land owner were on hand to witness the release of 300 mature coho salmon into the creek where it runs through Chanslor Ranch north of Bodega Bay.

The hope is the release of the spawning size fish will change Salmon Creek from a salmon-less stream into one that has some, particularly since California coho, or silver salmon, continue to maintain a thin margin of survival despite efforts to save them.

California Fish and Game supervising senior biologist Bob Coey and DFG colleague Gail Seymour, say the extensive community interest in and restoration of the creeks watershed over the past several years is making the possibility of re-establishing a salmon run in Salmon Creek, particularly a coho salmon run, a reality.

“We’ve got pretty good habitat in Fay Creek,” said Seymour of an important upstream tributary. “There’s been a lot of assessment and restoration work that has occurred through collaboration with landowners and the agencies.”

That work, according to Lisa Hulette, executive director of the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, has included community volunteers, willing landowners as well as support from local, state and federal agencies, including California Fish and Game, the State Coastal Conservancy, the California Water Resources Control Board, the Community Foundation, the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and the Occidental-based Prunuske Chatham Inc., restoration firm, among others.

According to California Trout Unlimited, coho salmon were once found in coastal Pacific streams from Monterey Bay to Alaska. According to TU, California had an estimated 500,000 coho salmon in the 1940’s a number now down to about 5,000 fish.

“Coho were last seen in here, to all accounts, back in 1996 and there weren’t many then,” said Coey, who co-founded and who supervises an on-going Department Fish and Game coho salmon recovery-breeding program. “I think the last big drought did them in.”

He said the released fish are surplus fish from the recovery-breeding program and are from both the Russian River and from the Lagunitas Creek watersheds.

California’s coho situation, meanwhile, mirrors challenges faced by many state salmonid populations, including chinook salmon, a major salmon species that has undergone severe population reduction in California waters and is listed as threatened in the Russian River watershed.

Coho, one of seven species of Pacific salmon belonging to the genus Oncorhynchus, according to TU, and one of five species found in California, is listed as endangered.

Coho normally spend their initial year in fresh water and the next two in salt water before returning to spawn in their birth streams once winter rains have opened up many of the sand bars that close small coastal during the summer.

Meanwhile, back at the creek, Coey, said the fish, mature spawners weighing between 1.5 to 2 pounds, will hopefully not only survive to repopulate the stream but provide a genetic link to the fish that historically spawned in Salmon Creek even though they were not hatched there.

Both Coey and Seymour say the hope is that the Russian River fish, which appear to grow larger than their southern, Marin County, counterparts, will none the less mix genes enough to come close to matching the original genetics found in the creek’s extirpated coho population.

They said the hope of success, in addition to the restoration work, is being bolstered by recent ocean conditions, including resumption of food producing upwellings that have been missing in the past couple years, that should help smolts survive their ocean journey home.

“The situation is unique,” Coey said.

(Excerpted from: Sonoma West)

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