The first big rains of winter have attracted a roiling menagerie to the creeks and tributaries in Marin County’s lush San Geronimo Valley, where spawning coho salmon are living proof that, given a chance, Mother Nature can right humanity’s wrongs.
Schools of the endangered coho are wriggling their way up Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks, drawing tourists, schoolchildren and naturalists who jostle for the opportunity to see the majestic fish leap from the foaming rapids. Cheers went up recently as coho continually hurled themselves into and over the waterfall known as the Ink Wells on San Geronimo Creek.
“We’re in this urban environment, but you can see something that usually happens only in places like Alaska,” said Allison Murphy, who came from Petaluma with her 8- and 13-year-old children to see the fish. “It’s just incredible that they come here all the way from the ocean.”
There are more salmon in the waterways of this picturesque valley than anywhere else in California, and the first winter rains are always a good time to see the shining 2-footers flapping against the current. Last year, they deposited more eggs in the creeks and tributaries of Marin County than any other year since biologists first counted in 1982.
It was the high point of a remarkable renaissance, but even there, the species is one environmental disaster removed from extinction, warned Todd Steiner, the director of the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, or SPAWN.
“People hear the happy story, but the truth is they could all disappear in the blink of an eye,” Steiner said. “The threats just keep coming.”
At least 200 homes are next to, and in some cases spanning, the creeks, especially in Woodacre. Steiner said leaking septic tanks, collapsing roadways and sediment from runoff are in abundance in the area, and all pose risks for the fish. Fifty percent of the spawning grounds in the valley are in developed areas — which makes this salmon run unique. And 60 percent of the original riparian habitat crucial to their survival has been eliminated, including old-growth redwoods and other trees.
“This area is gentrifying fast,” said Steiner, who recently sued the county and blocked construction of a 3,600-square-foot home within 20 feet of the creek when county law mandates 100-foot setbacks. “New people are moving in who think they want to live in the forest until they live in the forest. Then they want to cut down all the trees because they can’t see the sun.”
It is too early to tell, but Steiner thinks the salmon run this year is smaller than in the past. His pessimism would not have convinced the people jamming into the parking lot at the Shafter Bridge, one of the primary viewing spots near the confluence of Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks.
“It’s very thrilling, and it’s inexpensive entertainment,” said Leslie Curchack, 60, of Petaluma as she stood on the bank watching a big red male and a greenish female cavorting downstream from the bridge. “Last night, I watched ‘March of the Penguins’ and this is in that vein. It’s a natural creature enduring incredible hardship to survive.”
The spawning fish swim 33 miles from the open ocean into Tomales Bay and up the creek through the redwood-studded valley to lay their eggs. Biologists believe the females wait to lay eggs until they’ve found the same location where they were born three years before.
The region, on the northwest side of Mount Tamalpais, has become a statewide model for fisheries restoration, especially since coho salmon were moved from threatened status to endangered this year under the Endangered Species Act. 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 grounds are in the middle of communities. Fortunately, many of the locals are beginning to take a proprietary interest and the schools have gotten involved, organizing work parties and teaching children about the historic migration.
More than a century ago, some 6,000 coho spawned in the creeks 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 more dams were constructed over the next century, the largest being Peter’s Dam at Kent Lake, finished in 1953 and then raised 42 feet in 1982. The dams blocked 50 percent of the historic salmon habitat, reduced the amount of gravel and increased sedimentation in the creeks.
Still, old-timers remember how they used to gig fish from decks or garage hatches 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 Lagunitas Creek.
Steiner, a founder of the international Sea Turtle Restoration Project, began SPAWN in 1997 after he discovered that the spawning coho in San Geronimo Creek were blocked by an eroded concrete apron at Roy’s Dam near Woodacre.
He led an all-volunteer effort to build jump pools. The dam is now a favorite spot to view the migrating fish.
Since then, SPAWN’s Fish Rescue Program has saved more than 15,000 juvenile salmon and steelhead from dying in drying pools during the summer. The group has a contract with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board to monitor water quality, establish a citizens’ creek emergency team, provide educational resources to the public and begin a sediment-control and water-quality improvement program.
On Friday, Robert Meckfessel, a 46-year-old contractor and salmon fisherman from Point Reyes Station, pointed out five spawning salmon to his 5-year-old daughter, Maxine, right after the last rains. He said he comes to the creek every year to watch the annual migration.
“I like watching them just as much as I like catching them,” he said, quickly pointing out that he always releases coho when he fishes in his boat in the ocean.
“I like watching them more than I like catching them,” interrupted Maxine.
As part of community outreach, SPAWN also sponsors salmon-watching creek walks with docents during spawning season. The Marin Municipal Water District, which is required by the state to help the coho as mitigation for raising Peter’s Dam, works with SPAWN to monitor releases from the dam, install woody debris in the creeks and replant vegetation.
“There is major interest in the fish here from all over the Bay Area,” Steiner said. “But even with all our volunteers, we’re still just trying to keep up.”