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by Eric Ettlinger

Coho season is wrapping up, and thankfully it’s ending with more of a bang than a whimper. In late January, at the typical end of the coho spawning season, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the headline “Crisis for the coho” with a couple of pictures showing the extremely dry conditions in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. As if on cue, the rain started falling a few days later and coho spawning took off. Since then spawning activity has subsided and in the last week we’ve seen what are likely the last few coho of the season. Our preliminary watershed totals are 433 coho and 203 redds, which is roughly double the size of the coho run three years ago.

Steelhead (pictured) have also been spawning in impressive numbers. In the last three weeks MMWD biologists have seen 153 steelhead and 126 redds. Steelhead are likely to continue spawning through at least April, and at this pace we’re looking at a very good year for steelhead. Rain is forecast to return late next week, which should bring up another wave of steelhead spawners.

steelhead female and small male

Steelhead female and small male

steelhead male

Steelhead male

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by Eric Ettlinger

Female coho

Female coho (photo by Rosa Albanese)

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 gauge has recorded over 11 inches of rain, while the gauge 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.

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by Eric Ettlinger

coho salmon pair

Coho salmon pair in Lagunitas Creek, January 31, 2014

Finally some good news from Lagunitas Creek! Last Friday MMWD biologists conducted surveys to get a baseline salmon count ahead of a three-day increase in stream flows. This was the last “Upstream Migration Flow” of the season, and we wanted to document how many salmon spawned in response to the extra water. We were blown away to see significant numbers of salmon spawning throughout the creek before the flow even started. Apparently the 0.07″ of rain we received on Thursday was enough to encourage coho to finally spawn. In total we observed 118 live coho and 45 new coho redds. So far this season we’ve documented 252 coho and 103 coho redds. On Friday we also saw seven spawning steelhead and seven new steelhead redds. Finally, during a partial survey of Walker Creek (the next salmon stream north of Lagunitas Creek), we found the first coho redd and coho carcass of the season.

The Upstream Migration Flow coincided with 0.8″ of rain on Sunday, and we’ll be documenting the salmon response in Lagunitas and Walker Creeks for the rest of the week. By next week we should have a pretty good idea how many salmon survived the last few months and finally spawned.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Salmon spawning in Lagunitas Creek has remained muted, despite water releases  from Kent Lake. On January 1-3 MMWD released approximately 29 million gallons of water to increase flows in Lagunitas Creek from 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 35 cfs. This “upstream migration flow” is intended to allow salmon to swim upstream through shallow areas and spawn, although it’s unusual for spawning activity to increase significantly when these releases don’t coincide with rain. We found 12 new coho redds following the flow, which was an increase from the previous week, but similar to the low counts in December (see chart). We also found a redd that was likely built by a steelhead, which was the first evidence of steelhead in the creek this season. This past week we surveyed all of Lagunitas Creek, nearly down to Point Reyes Station, and found ten new coho redds.

To date we’ve observed 57 coho redds in Lagunitas Creek, which is exceptionally low for mid-January. A surge in spawning is still possible; back in 2001 we counted 96 coho redds in the second-to-last week of January. With no rain in the forecast that’s probably too much to hope for, but hopefully the forecast is wrong and rain is on its way.

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by Eric Ettlinger

January has arrived and both rainfall and coho salmon numbers remain far below normal in the Lagunitas Creek watershed (see chart). In the last two weeks MMWD biologists counted 15 new redds in the main stem of Lagunitas Creek. On Tuesday a school of 35 adult coho were seen in the “Swimming Hole,” a deep pool in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. That brings the season total to just shy of 100 coho (some of these were likely counted multiple times), which is far below the 400 fish typically seen by early January.

Yesterday MMWD began releasing extra water to provide an “upstream migration flow” for coho salmon. Salmon generally prefer storm runoff for migrating upstream, but on occasion we’ve seen coho increase their spawning activity in response to these water releases. If the extra water doesn’t encourage a surge in coho spawning, there is some light rain in the forecast for late next week that might do the trick. We’ve seen spawning activity spike as late as the last week of January, but hopefully we won’t have to wait that long.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Another week without rain and very few salmon are spawning in Lagunitas Creek. MMWD biologists documented 24 coho salmon and seven new coho redds this past week. We also saw three Chinook salmon and identified what appeared to be five new Chinook redds. The total counts are similar to what we saw the week before, but far below average for the third week of December, which should be peak spawning time. In fact, excluding the population crash of 2008-09, the 22 coho redds seen so far this season are the fewest seen for this date in the last 17 years. Back in 2004-05, the great-grandparents of this year’s coho had constructed nearly 200 redds by this date (see chart).

Looking on the bright side, Lagunitas Creek is faring better than many coastal streams that continue to be closed by sand bars due to the record-breaking dry spell we’re experiencing. Water releases by MMWD have allowed some salmon to migrate as far upstream as Peters Dam, and more water will be released in January to facilitate additional spawning. In about a third of years, coho spawning peaks in January and this appears to be one of those years. All we can do is hope that rain returns soon.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Coho salmon are currently spawning throughout Lagunitas Creek, albeit in below-average numbers. We observed 21 coho salmon and 11 new redds this week (see table of MMWD salmonid observations so far this season). The most upstream of these fish were two coho on a redd upstream of the Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area, about as far upstream as salmon can go in the creek. These fish likely migrated upstream following the small storm we received last week. We expect coho spawning activity to increase slowly but remain below average while the dry weather continues.

Chinook salmon observations have declined over the last few weeks, with only one Chinook and one Chinook redd observed this week. We may see another pulse of Chinook if/when the rain returns. The extended weather forecast is for dry conditions to continue for the next two weeks.

coho redd

Coho redd

I’ve included a photo of one of the coho redds we observed this week. The contrast between the light-colored redd and the dark, undisturbed streambed, plus the extraordinarily clear water, make this redd unusually easy to identify. Upwards of 2,000 salmon eggs are likely buried in the upper right portion of this redd.

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Photo of Chinook salmon in Lagunitas Creek

Chinook salmon in Lagunitas Creek. Photo by Madeline Cooper, a member of the Watershed Stewards project.

by Eric Ettlinger

Salmon spawning season has returned to Lagunitas Creek, and so has one of its more sporadic and uncommon visitors. Chinook salmon, commonly known as king salmon, have been seen spawning in the creek for the first time in five years! The first sign of Chinook this season was a redd discovered on October 24, which would be exceptionally early for our resident coho salmon to spawn (a redd is a gravel nest where salmon lay their eggs). Their presence was confirmed on November 13 when three Chinook spawners were seen on that very same redd. Since then MMWD biologists have documented a total of seven Chinook salmon in Lagunitas Creek, which is the most seen since 2006. These salmon probably weren’t born in Lagunitas Creek but may have gotten lost as they tried to migrate back to their natal streams in the Central Valley.

One of the most perplexing aspects of our Chinook observations this season has been the presence of very small salmon (less than a foot long) sharing redds with very large Chinook. These small fish behave like “jacks,” which are small but sexually mature salmon that return to spawn a year earlier than full-sized salmon. The adult male salmon chase the jacks like they were competitors, but we’ve never seen jacks this small. We’ve only seen two so far, but ruled out trout or other fish species as candidates. A little research turned up a Chinook life history variant called the “mini-jack,” which migrate as fry to estuaries for only a couple of months before swimming back upstream to spawn. If these little fish are indeed mini-jacks, then Chinook salmon must have spawned in Lagunitas Creek last year without being observed. We did find a few redds in October and November last year that looked like Chinook redds, but without seeing the fish we couldn’t assume that Chinook had returned. Now it looks like the King may have returned a year ago.

To date we haven’t seen any coho salmon in Lagunitas Creek, but that’s not unusual. The first coho tend to show up in late November after heavy rains increase stream flows. Last week’s rain hardly increased flows, so the coho may be waiting a little longer to migrate upstream. Rain or no rain, we’ll probably start seeing coho within the next couple of weeks. Once the rain really starts falling, we’re expecting more coho salmon to return to Lagunitas Creek than we’ve seen in at least seven years.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Long before sub-prime mortgages became a household term, coho salmon were suffering through their own housing crisis. For more than a century, dam construction has blocked salmon from returning to the birthplaces of their ancestors. In Marin County, dams and urbanization have eliminated most of the habitat for salmon, and much of the remaining habitat is highly degraded. Some of the best remaining habitat is in Lagunitas Creek, which runs through Water District, State Park, and federal land. But even here the creek bears the scars of logging, hydrologic manipulation, and land management practices that included removing logs from the channel. These logs, which once included massive old-growth redwoods that could remain stable for decades, provided deep water, protection from predators, refuge from floods, and even insects for food. Without these log houses, young salmon are essentially living on the streets, vulnerable to predators, the weather, and hunger.

woody debris structures Lagunitas Creek

Log structures constructed in Lagunitas Creek in 2013

Starting in 1999, the Marin Municipal Water District began collecting logs from Kent Lake and using them to build log structures for juvenile coho salmon. The first structures were fairly simple: one to three cut logs, held in place with boulders and cables, and often protruding a short distance into the creek. Over time we learned that structures that collect sticks and small logs also tend to create the deepest pools with the most fish. We now build larger, more elaborate structures and arrange them in groups to transform simple, straight channels into complex meanders. In September, using funding provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we completed four new structures in a straight, shallow section of Lagunitas Creek. By next summer the creek will hopefully be meandering between complex debris jams housing hundreds of juvenile coho salmon.

snorkeling salmon survey

MMWD’s AmeriCorps interns counting juvenile salmon

So how do we know that these log homes are actually benefitting salmon? We monitor them extensively, measuring water depths, observing them during winter storms, and snorkeling around them to count the juvenile salmon using them through the summer. The results have been encouraging. Coho numbers at enhancement sites quadrupled within two years of construction. In the last 15 years the summer survival rate of juvenile coho throughout Lagunitas Creek has increased by approximately six times. While we can’t prove that the log structures are responsible for the increase in coho survival, the evidence suggests that providing more homes has made Lagunitas Creek a safer neighborhood for coho salmon.

large woody debris vs salmon survival

Summer survival of juvenile coho has increased as more log structures have been built. The New Year’s Eve Flood of 2005 took a toll on both structures and salmon. (Click chart to view.)

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by Eric Ettlinger

This post is the sixth in a year-long series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Read the previous post here.

In our monthly series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, we’ve so far covered the mighty bald eagle, fascinating frogs, and beautiful but exceptionally rare flowering plants—all found on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed. It now falls on me to introduce the most diminutive and charisma-challenged local endangered species that you will likely never see. Measuring less than 2.5 inches long, with a translucent body and a unicorn-like barb, please give it up for the California freshwater shrimp (Syncaris pacifica)!

California freshwater shrimp

California freshwater shrimp (Syncaris pacifica)

These little shrimp (that’s somewhat redundant, isn’t it?) are found in slow water habitats throughout lower Lagunitas Creek, downstream of MMWD’s watershed lands. There they feed on detritus—the bits of organic matter that wash downstream and collect on aquatic plants and roots that extend into the water from bank vegetation. Their translucent bodies and subtle movements make them nearly impossible to be seen by native fish species, but non-native fish such as bass are highly efficient hunters and aren’t as easily fooled. Luckily the shrimp have a last-ditch defense. When eaten, they can jab their sharp spine into the roof of the fish’s mouth and hopefully encourage the fish to spit them out. Shrimp are occasionally found with a broken rostral spine, which may be evidence of a close escape.

About 3,000 species of shrimp exist worldwide, including roughly 650 freshwater species. North America hosts only 17 freshwater species, including the California freshwater shrimp. A sister species, the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, lived in southern California before going extinct in the 1930s. That shrimp was the only other member of the Syncaris genus and the only freshwater shrimp to go extinct in recent times. The closest remaining relatives in North America are two species of cave shrimp in Kentucky and Alabama.

The risk of becoming the next shrimp to go extinct becomes clear when one realizes that the global distribution of Syncaris pacifica is limited to about 20 streams in Marin, Sonoma and Napa Counties, and all but one of these streams (Lagunitas Creek) are on private land. Channelized creeks, banks hardened with riprap, cattle grazing, water diversions, pesticides and non-native fish are all threats to its continued existence. Lagunitas Creek, however, remains a shrimp stronghold, where these threats are greatly reduced. Shrimp habitat is well protected on federal and State Park land, non-native fish are uncommon, and the creek has more water in the summer than it did historically, due to releases of water by MMWD. Surveys in recent years have found above-average numbers of shrimp in Lagunitas Creek. In other creeks, private landowners and community groups are working to protect and restore shrimp habitat. So while very few people are fortunate enough to see one of these unique animals, many people are working for their continued survival.

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