April 10, 2012

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While strolling near a stream in the winter of 1999, Todd Steiner came across a worrying site. Trapped in the shallow water, adult coho salmon were frantically trying to navigate a golf course’s dilapidated dam. “The fish kept slamming into the dam, then falling back down only to try and jump up again,” he said.

Shaken by the experience, Steiner worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the fish moved over the barrier. And he didn’t stop there. Steiner also engaged the community in converting the broken down dam into a series of jump pools that allowed the fish to continue their upstream migration. From this project, a conservation organization called the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network—or SPAWN—was born.

Since its inception, Steiner has served as SPAWN’s executive director. The organization—part of the Turtle Island Restoration Network—coordinates an array of activities focused on saving central California’s endangered coho salmon population from extinction. Based 20 minutes from San Francisco, SPAWN focuses its efforts on the Lagunitas Creek Watershed, which supports 10 to 20 percent of central California’s coho salmon populations.

In the last decades, coho salmon along the central Californian coast have declined more than 95 percent. In the 1960s, this was predominantly driven by dams and logging. Today, the salmon’s biggest threat is suburban development. In a natural habitat, streams occur in forests, which act like sponges during heavy rainstorms. When development takes place nearby, forest buffers are reduced, meaning water running off roads or driveways enters a creek or stream at a much higher quantity and velocity. During rain storms, tiny juvenile salmon require shallow floodplains or eddy sanctuaries to hide in, or else they are washed away. For aesthetic reasons, people also tend to clear streams of natural components like logs or brush that create habitat complexity.  As a result, juvenile coho salmon get pummeled in winter storms, and population recovery continues to stagnate.

A stream free of salmon means a less healthy forest. Coho salmon are indicator species of the environment’s overall health. While nutrients normally flow from land to sea, salmon returning to their native streams to spawn reverse this flow of energy. They provide food for raccoons, otters, great blue herons, hawks and other creatures. In areas where salmon have gone extinct and thus removed this cycle of nutrients, red wood trees and other evergreens suffered a reduced growth rate.   Even in a small watershed of 10 square miles, several thousand returning adult salmon represent thousands of pounds of protein being brought back to the ecosystem.

The species is also the totem animal for some native peoples on the West Coast, and is regarded as a symbol of wilderness. Indeed, anyone familiar with the salmon’s epic 3-year lifecycle could appreciate it. In October or November, adult salmon migrate from the ocean into the creeks and streams of their birth. Upon reaching their destination, females turn on their sides to dig holes in the streambeds up to 14 inches deep with their tails, and then utilize the stream’s hydrology to deposit their eggs in the hole. After males fertilize the eggs, females diligently cover the hole with loose gravel. The eggs hatch based upon water temperature, and the tadpole-like young bide their time in the hole for a couple of months, sustaining themselves on nutrients from their yolk sack. Eventually, they wiggle free of the sediment and spend the next year and a half in the stream. If they survive predators and the erratic winter storm events, they make their way down to the ocean as the stream dries up in the spring. From there, they spend another year and a half growing and maturing, before returning to the stream so that another generation can repeat the process anew.

Steiner and a group of dedicated volunteers are working to keep this cycle intact. Since 2000, they have saved around 30,000 juveniles stranded in drying up pools, moving the young to sections of flowing water. They add woody debris to streams to provide refuge for juveniles and undertake floodbank restoration projects by widening the stream banks. At their nursery, they grow around 8,000 native plants per year to plant along the streams and also encourage property owners to recreate forest patches surrounding their own creeks. To reduce heavy runoff, SPAWN helped install a 30,000-gallon cistern at a local school that catches rainwater from the roof and uses it in the school’s organic garden.

For eight or nine years, these efforts appeared to be working. The coho population seemed stable. One year, spawning females built a record 600 nests. But then, four years ago, the population crashed. Last year, the salmon only built 30 nests. Unhealthy ocean waters are impacting the adults’ abilities to gather enough sustenance to make the journey upstream, and sediments from building projects are washing into streams and suffocating the buried eggs and young. If the population was healthy it could navigate these obstacles, but with numbers already greatly reduced any such hurdles become life threatening.

Thankfully, this year things are looking a bit better. Steiner thinks about 130 breeding females have returned. Still, he said, “The population could blink out in a minute.”

“The sad story is that, while we repair the mistakes of the past, those mistakes are being repeated right here in the present,” he explained. California ordinance supporting streamside conservation is supposed to ban development within 100 feet of creeks and streams, but these rules are rarely enforced. In an effort to change the situation, SPAWN is suing Marin County. “The legal and political battle is ongoing,” Steiner said, “but it’s a long-term battle that we’re committed to.”

For anyone in the Bay area looking to get involved, SPAWN is primarily volunteer-driven and the organization welcomes anyone interested in building rain gardens, working in native plant nurseries, monitoring salmon counts, rescuing young fish and even lending a hand with things like brochure and web design. SPAWN also runs educational creek walks in the winter. “We invite all kinds of people with different interests and skills to come in and help make the world a better place,” Steiner said.

Top Image Credit: Soggydan, Flickr 

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