Big salmon run in Marin. Record number of fish spawning in

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Big salmon run in Marin.

Record number of fish spawning in county's creeks

Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer  

February 14, 2002


Spectacular Spawning Season. Chronicle graphic by Joe Shoulak; Chronicle illustration by John Blanchard


A renaissance of one of California's most threatened species of fish -- the coho salmon -- is transforming the meandering creeks and tributaries in Marin County's lush San Geronimo Valley into giant outdoor laboratories.

There are more salmon in the waterways of this picturesque valley than any other place in California, and the winter rains seem to have created a population explosion.

The celebrated fish wriggled their way up Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks in huge numbers over the past four months and deposited more eggs than any other year since biologists first counted in 1982.

The salmon run has had residents, tourists and wildlife biologists chattering giddily as the last stragglers lay their eggs and die.

"It's absolutely the best we've seen," said Gregory Andrew, fishery biologist for the Marin Municipal Water District. "What's really unique about this year is we're not only seeing coho, but we're also seeing chinook and chum salmon."

The region, on the northwest side of Mount Tamalpais, has become a statewide model for fisheries restoration. Experts say Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks and their tributaries support 10 percent of the state's coho population. It is particularly valuable to researchers because the primary spawning areas are smack dab in the middle of communities.

The annual run is drawing an increasing number of tourists, and the locals are beginning to take a proprietary interest. The schools have even gotten involved, teaching children about the historic migration and organizing work parties to restore portions of the creek.

It is an encouraging sign, given the history of neglect in an area that once boasted the best salmon fishing in all of California. Before dams cut off 50 percent of the spawning area, old-timers stories of how they used to gig fish from decks or garages overlooking the creek. In 1959, when the habitat was already in serious decline, the largest recorded coho in state history, a 22 pounder, was fished out of the creek.

Dams, urbanization, poor grazing practices, logging and gravel mining combined to drastically reduced the salmon habitat in Marin County and throughout California. In 1996, after a century of abuse, coho were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Since then, a concerted effort has been made throughout the state -- but especially along the Northern California coast -- to improve conditions.

Most of the spawning fish have completed the 33-mile journey from the open ocean into Tomales Bay and up the creek to Woodacre. Now, the creek beds winding through the redwood-studded valley are filled with a less conspicuous, but still rare and precious resource -- salmon eggs.

"People are really dazzled and amazed by these huge fish coming upstream to spawn," said Reuven Walder, a watershed biologist for the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, or SPAWN. "What most people don't realize is that these fish are living in the creek for over a year after they hatch, and this may be the most sensitive stage of their lives."

Biologists have so far counted 318 nests, known as "redds," in the creeks and tributaries, including an unprecedented 27 chinook and 10 chum salmon redds. Another 84 redds were counted in Olema Creek, a tributary that joins Lagunitas Creek near the mouth of Tomales Bay.

The numbers do not include 47 redds that researchers could not positively identify and that might be either one of the salmon species or steelhead trout,

which have just begun spawning this year.

Andrew said he had occasionally seen a chinook or chum over the past five years, "but I've never seen numbers like this."

The previous high for the watershed was in 1996-97 when 254 redds were counted, but none of the nests were chum or chinook. There are no numbers from Olema Creek that year. The next year, there were 253 redds counted in the watershed, and another 126 in Olema Creek.

Walder said for each redd there were at least two living fish in the creek, which means more than 800 salmon spawned this winter in the Lagunitas watershed.

At one time, 6,000 coho are believed to have spawned in the creek every year. At that time, the salmon swam from Tomales Bay virtually to the top of Mount Tamalpais, spawning in tributaries all along the way. But industry started taking a toll almost from the day Joseph Warren Revere spotted the valley in 1846 and saw "a copious stream, fed by mountain brooks."

The redwood forests surrounding the creek were logged between 1860 and 1900.

The first major dam, which created Lake Lagunitas, was built in 1873. Six other dams were built over the next century, the largest being Peter's Dam, at Kent Lake, which was built in 1953 and then raised 42 feet in 1982.

The dams blocked miles and miles of salmon habitat, reduced the amount of gravel and increased sedimentation in the creeks.

Todd Steiner, the director of SPAWN, said the growing population in the area had also created problems. He said 3,300 residents now live where half the fish spawn, and 200 parcels are either next to or straddle the creeks. Erosion, pollution and horses tromping through the water are among the residential impacts.

Nonetheless, Steiner's dedication to the cause has helped convince most residents that the salmon are worth saving, and now almost everybody in the area has an eye out for their well-being.

"Most of the places where coho habitat is being restored don't have humans living there," he said. "The idea that we can restore a habitat right where so many people live is very exciting."

The local restoration effort began in the early 1980s when a group called Trout Unlimited began lobbying the county to stop the decline of the fishery. That work eventually led to a decision by the state to make the Marin Municipal Water District implement a series of restoration programs to mitigate for the raising of Peter's Dam.

Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey has since led a multicounty effort called FishNet 4C to save the fisheries of the central coast. The effort helped get national recognition for the Tomales Bay and Lagunitas Creek watersheds, which last year were named model fishery projects for the development of a statewide watershed management plan.

The Marin water district is now almost as passionate about the restoration program as the members of SPAWN, who have worked with the district monitoring releases from the dam, installing woody debris in the creeks and re-planting vegetation.

One of the biggest success stories was an all-volunteer effort to build jump pools for salmon at Roy's Dam, which is located on a private golf course. The dam is now a favorite spot to view the migrating fish.

On one recent day, virtually every golfer passing Roy's Dam stopped to look at the salmon and talk about their spawning habits. For Steiner, that in itself was a victory.

"We're all part of the problem," he said, "and we all have to be part of the solution."


E-mail Peter Fimrite at pfimrite@sfchronicle.com.
 
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