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Posts Tagged ‘salmon’

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 Erin Tracy

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

Coho salmon spawning season is almost upon us again, so if you want to see one of California’s most spectacular endangered fish in action, late November and December are the times to do it.

Starting in the late fall, coho begin their long journey from their two-year homes in the ocean back to the river of their birth. This is an incredibly strenuous and at times dangerous journey that every coho embarks on with the hopes of successfully reproducing, even though they meet an untimely end within a few weeks of spawning. Sense of smell is the key factor in the salmons’ travels from their distant ocean homes to their natal river. Salmon have a keener sense of smell than dogs, and in combination with ocean currents and the gravitational pull of the moon, they are able to make their way back to the river of their origin to start the whole process over again.

Spawning season is brought on by heavy rains that open up the waterways by breaching sand bars and providing the right amount of water depth and flow for the salmon to swim upstream. Once female salmon have made it upstream, they begin to build nests (called redds) near the heads of riffles where the water just begins to flow rapidly. This water flow allows for plenty of dissolved oxygen to reach the eggs and aids in growth.

Salmon redd

Salmon redds are relatively easy to identify in clear streams because the large pit and gravel mound are lighter in color than the surrounding streambed.

To create these impressive nests the female fish must flip her body up and down to dig out a gravel pit and lay her eggs inside. Female coho can lay up to 2,600 eggs and, depending on the size of the fish, these pits can stretch the width of the stream. Once the eggs are deposited into the redd, one or two males will fertilize them, and then the female will immediately cover the eggs with gravel. She will protect this redd for as long as she can until she dies.

Although Lagunitas Creek supports one of the largest and most stable coho populations south of Mendocino County’s Noyo River, coho are found in fewer than half of the streams they once inhabited. Since coho numbers are still low enough to land them on the endangered species list, it is vital that we do everything we can during spawning season to ensure the health of the species. Here are a few simple things you can do during spawning season to help:

  • Don’t go fishing! Fishing is prohibited in Lagunitas Creek. (You can, however, fish in MMWD’s reservoirs. Call 415-945-1194 for current information.)
  • Cross streams only at established crossings.
  • Keep pets out of the creek.
  • Don’t remove woody materials from stream channels.
  • When observing salmon, minimize noise and avoid sudden movements so that the fish may spawn undisturbed.

If you want to see these fish in action, go two to three days after a heavy rainstorm to MMWD’s Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area in West Marin (find directions on our website).

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by Robin McKillop

Believe it or not, the school year has already started in many areas throughout Marin—and that means it’s time to roll out another exciting year of MMWD’s water education programs. If you’re a busy teacher, be sure to reserve your place today. If you’re a busy parent, remember to encourage your child’s teacher to participate in MMWD’s water education programs. They’re fun! They’re free! They’re educational!

Mt. Tamalpais Watershed field tripLast year, MMWD’s Water Wonders environmental education programs provided outreach to thousands of students at public and private schools in Marin. Through MMWD’s programs, students learned all about water—from source to supply to conservation. Many students had the chance to reinforce classroom concepts by visiting our beautiful watershed lands and participating in restoration and conservation activities. High school students were also invited to visit MMWD’s Water Quality Laboratory where they learned about current drinking water regulations, analyses and instrumentation, as well as the specifics of water quality here in MMWD’s service area. Elementary school students continued to learn about the importance of clean water and fish habitat by hatching and releasing trout through the “Trout in the Classroom” program, offered in partnership with North Bay Trout Unlimited, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project.

The Water Wonders brochure provides detailed information about all of our programs. This year, we are excited to introduce some new educational opportunities while continuing to offer long-term favorites. Hot off the press is our “Marin Municipal Water District” poster—a great addition to any classroom, providing a fun and informative overview of MMWD’s watershed, reservoirs and treatment plants, as well as the people, plants and animals who share our water supply. Be sure to order your free copy today. Also new this year is our expanded school bus reimbursement program. Now, all schools that book an MMWD-guided field trip to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed can apply for a reimbursement for travel costs. A limited number of reimbursements, up to $500, are available on a first-come, first-served basis—so book your field trip today! Finally, don’t miss out on our exciting new classroom presentation, “The History of MMWD and Preservation of Mt. Tamalpais,” given by Jack Gibson, author of Images of America: Mount Tamalpais and the Marin Municipal Water District. This presentation can be tailored to the needs of your students and is a great way to enhance your students’ understanding of local history and the rich tradition of environmental protection in Marin.

Programs are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly. All programs are offered free of charge and are designed to support California education standards while fostering water conservation and environmental stewardship. Bilingual (English-Spanish) classroom presentations and assemblies are available. We hope you will join us this school year in educating Marin’s students all about water. Jump in and make your reservation today! Click here for contact information.

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by Ariana Chiapella

It is truly amazing how much work a group of motivated, enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers can achieve in just a few short hours. On June 29, my site partner Michael Paccassi and I organized a salmonid habitat enhancement event along San Geronimo Creek. This project, called an Individual Service Project (ISP) in AmeriCorps lingo, was a requirement during our term of service with the Watershed Stewards Project (WSP). On paper, this event seemed like only a small piece of our mandated work for the ten months we’ve spent at MMWD, but in reality it was a perfect snapshot representation of everything we have done throughout our time here.

The majority of our work has been “stream restoration,” which at the water district includes spawner surveys, smolt trapping, snorkel surveys, analysis of engineered woody debris habitat, and the ensuing data entry. As a result, we in a way have been inducted into the fragile lives of the endangered coho salmon and have formed an intimate relationship with all of the factors that they depend on for survival. Consequently, the work our volunteers completed during our ISP was directly related to these important aspects of a salmonid’s habitat.

Another large piece of our required work has been community outreach and education. We developed and taught a six-week curriculum to third and fifth graders at a Title One school. The lessons were based in environmental science and included the relationships between watersheds, the water cycle, fish biology and human activity. The key messages of this curriculum were also shared at multiple outreach and community volunteer events throughout the year.

The skills we gained by engaging with the public and communicating WSP’s mission were crucial in our recruitment of over 30 volunteers for the San Geronimo Creek project. Of course it certainly helped to already have so many dedicated MMWD volunteers! We were so excited to see such a strong community turnout at the event. In addition to some familiar friendly faces from other MMWD volunteer events, we also had a great turnout of new volunteers.

The landowners’ property that we worked on was the perfect fit for a volunteer project such as this, not only because of the manageable projects it presented, but because it showed community members how they can make a difference on their own properties and most importantly because of the graciousness of our hosts.

We all banded together to tackle the invasive plants that were growing throughout the riparian corridor and squelching the vital native species that contribute to the habitat that salmonids need for survival. After eradicating the vinca, cape ivy, English ivy, Japanese knotweed and others, our group replanted the entire riparian area with fast-growing native trees, shrubs and perennial plants that, if all goes well, will take hold and restore the biodiversity needed for complex habitat and stable, non-eroding stream banks.

San Geronimo Creek habitat restoration

Before, during, after: Volunteers did a fantastic job of eradicating the Japanese knotweed and squelching the English ivy.

Thanks to a donation from Good Earth for breakfast, lunch from MMWD, and cookies and watermelon from the landowners, our volunteers were rightfully rewarded for their hard work. We could not have asked for a better group of volunteers!

In all honesty, I at first doubted the point of an ISP at the beginning of the WSP term. It seemed so unrelated to the overarching basis of our work here in MMWD’s Fisheries Department. In retrospect, it encompassed everything: endangered species protection, community outreach and education. Not only were we working to improve riparian habitat for the benefit of the coho salmon and steelhead trout, but we were doing so through community organization and action. These principles are laced within WSP’s mission, and we strongly believe that they also will be carried with anyone who has been involved with our program during the past ten months, whether through our education curriculum, field surveys or volunteer events.

Check out MMWD’s Facebook page for more photos of the event!

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by Michael Paccassi and Ariana Chiapella

San Geronimo Salmon Habitat Enhancement Project flyer

Click the image above to view the event flier

As AmeriCorps members with the Watershed Stewards Project, we have had the unique opportunity to work with MMWD biologists in helping to protect, monitor and educate the public about the importance of salmonids like the coho salmon and steelhead trout. Though we aren’t all given the opportunity to work so closely with these beautiful and unique fish, as members of the community and stewards of the land we all share the responsibility of ensuring the survival and well-being of these endangered and threatened species.

Guess what? You’re in luck, because we’ve organized an event that will provide the community of Marin with the opportunity to do just that!

MMWD and the Watershed Stewards Project want to welcome you to a special riparian habitat enhancement project happening along the San Geronimo Creek. Come out and join us this Saturday, June 29, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. to show your support for the salmon you all know and love!

To encourage habitat recovery and reduce stream bank erosion, we will be removing non-native and invasive plant species along a section of the San Geronimo Creek. We also will be replanting with native California plant species and using tree shelters to encourage the growth of larger trees to provide shade and habitat for our finned friends in the creek.

We will meet a little before 9:00 a.m. across from the Two Bird Cafe at 625 San Geronimo Valley in San Geronimo. All ages are welcome, so please bring the whole family. Tools, water, snacks and lunch will be provided. All you need to bring is a pair of sturdy boots, some sun protection, a reusable water bottle and your enthusiastic, hard-working self.

To pre-register or for more information about this unique opportunity, contact us at volunteerprogram@marinwater.org or (415) 945-1188.

We look forward to seeing you out there!

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by Gregory Andrew, Fishery Program Manager   

I recently presented a report to the Watershed Committee on the district’s fisheries activities during 2012 and 2013. These activities include monitoring, habitat enhancement, and collaboration with the many agencies and organizations working on salmon restoration for Lagunitas Creek and other coastal watersheds.

Our monitoring is rigorous and we are now part of a state-wide effort for life-cycle monitoring, tracking salmon population trends in coastal streams throughout California. We conduct surveys during all the life stages of salmon while they are in Lagunitas Creek: juveniles (a.k.a. fry, young-of-the-year, parr or fingerlings); adult spawners; and smolts (the stage when they migrate to the ocean). There is positive news to report on the coho population in particular. At all three life stages, the coho in Lagunitas have shown an increase from the scary-low numbers of three and four years ago. The coho spawner run this past winter approached our long-term average of about 500 adults. This doesn’t mean that their recovery is complete, but it is a huge improvement over what had been characterized as an extinction vortex.

We have been successful at obtaining grants to help us implement habitat enhancement projects and assessments. We have implemented road drainage improvement projects, to reduce sediment from entering fish-bearing streams, and conducted assessments on all of the unpaved roads in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. Our current and very exciting approach to habitat enhancement is to improve habitat conditions during the winter to increase survival of coho and steelhead. This approach has the potential to increase the populations above the long-term average.

We are hardly working alone on these efforts. This work takes the support of the entire staff at MMWD and the Board of Directors. We also collaborate with a host of other agencies, organizations and individuals (including homeowners) who are equally as dedicated as MMWD, and we appreciate their participation. We all have more to do.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Coho salmon numbers in Lagunitas Creek have been so low in recent years that even a run-of-the-mill run would be welcome news. Well, I’m pleased to report that our current count of coho redds (nests) is just shy of a 17-year average.  In the last two weeks, MMWD biologists observed what may be the last few coho redds of the season, bringing the watershed total to 239. This is only eight redds shy of average and makes this the largest coho salmon run seen in the watershed in six years (see chart). What makes this even sweeter is that it was so unexpected. In 2011 we documented a relatively small number of coho smolts migrating from Lagunitas Creek to the ocean. Typically, only 2-5 percent of these fish would survive to return to their natal stream and start the cycle again. As things now stand, an astonishing 10.3 percent of those fish have returned. Excluding Olema Creek, where coho have returned at a fairly typical rate (4 percent), the rest of the watershed has seen nearly 13 percent of its coho return!

According to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, ocean conditions were very good for coho salmon in 2012. Physical conditions improved and plankton were abundant, including the copepods and fish larvae that make up coho salmon’s preferred prey. Looking forward, they predict that these favorable conditions will continue through 2013, which would be very good for Lagunitas Creek coho. If the coho currently in the ocean are surviving at a rate similar to what we just observed, we could see over a thousand coho salmon return in the fall. A record-breaking run isn’t out of the question.

Not to be forgotten, steelhead are currently spawning in small numbers (see chart). To date we’ve seen 15 steelhead and 38 redds, and spawning activity is likely to remain subdued while the dry weather continues. Once the rain returns, however, we’ll find out if ocean conditions have been as good to steelhead as they have been to coho.

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by Eric Ettlinger

The holiday season is a tough time to keep up with regular spawner updates, and a lot has been happening in Lagunitas Creek over the last three weeks. Right after my previous update (12/17/12) we were hit by the second large storm of the season, which dropped over seven inches of rain. Stream flows peaked at 1,900 cubic feet per second and within a week Kent Lake began spilling. Flows have remained too high since then to conduct surveys in the main stem of Lagunitas Creek.

A pair of coho salmon spawn in Lagunitas Creek.

A pair of coho salmon spawn in Lagunitas Creek.

On December 27, the day before Kent Lake started to spill, MMWD biologists conducted a survey in the ½-mile reach between the Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area and Peters Dam. They observed 28 coho and 12 new redds. Folks who visited the Fish Viewing Area around that time were lucky enough to witness the best salmon viewing in the last few years.

To date we’ve counted 320 live coho and 170 coho redds, which are the highest counts for early January since 2006. More than half of the redds found so far have been in San Geronimo Creek and Devil’s Gulch, where we’ve documented 49 and 42 coho redds, respectively. By the end of this week we’ll be able to once again survey the main stem of Lagunitas Creek, where we expect to find quite a few more coho redds.

MMWD fisheries intern Ariana Chiapella of the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project prepares to collect tissue samples from a spent female coho salmon.

MMWD fisheries intern Ariana Chiapella of the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project prepares to collect tissue samples from a spent female coho salmon.

The timing of spawning this season has been consistent with historical trends (see chart), so within the next three or four weeks coho spawning should essentially be over. But as coho decline, steelhead spawning will ramp up. We observed live steelhead for the first time last week in San Geronimo Creek. Steelhead spawning typically peaks in mid-February and continues through April. This year we’re expecting an above-average steelhead run to return to the Lagunitas Creek Watershed.

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by Eric Ettlinger

The deluge we received earlier in the month (more than ten inches of rain over eight days) raised Lagunitas Creek stream flows to their highest level since 2006. On the downside this may have scoured some early coho redds (and washed the eggs away), but on the upside the high water seems to have cleaned much of the streambed of accumulated fine sediments. In many places the clean gravel looks like a blank canvas on which coho are now creating their redds.

huge male coho carcass

Huge male coho carcass

Before I wax poetic on all the wonderful things the flood did for the creek (you should see the debris jams!), let me get to the fish numbers. In the last two weeks coho were seen spawning throughout the creek, and in numbers not seen in six years. MMWD biologists counted 66 coho redds, including 39 in Lagunitas Creek, 15 in accessible areas of San Geronimo Creek, and 12 in Devil’s Gulch. We also counted 130 live coho and found four carcasses (including the impressive male pictured here). To date we’ve counted 160 live coho and 80 redds, which is above average for mid-December (click here to see chart). This run is shaping up to be a huge improvement over the parent generation, which spawned three years ago. Only 67 coho were seen that entire season. This year’s coho are unlikely to match the runs of their grandparents (2006-07) or great-grandparents (2003-04), but it’s been a long time since a Lagunitas Creek coho run could be described as even “above average.”

Other notable observations from recent surveys included a school of 14 coho holding in a pool in San Geronimo Creek, and possibly the largest coho redd I’ve ever seen, measuring 27’ by 19’. Mid-December is usually the peak period for coho spawning in Lagunitas Creek, with spawning tapering off through January. Typically two-thirds of coho spawn after the peak week, so it’s likely that many more coho have yet to spawn and there will be plenty of opportunities to see them do it.

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