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County of Marin Failing to Protect Critical Habitat for Endangered Coho Salmon

Olema, CA– More than a 135 leading scientists from around the State and across the country criticized Marin County’s current draft stream conservation ordinance (draft SCA) in an open letter to Marin Supervisors, calling on them to close major loopholes. The scientists agreed that failure to do so will likely result in the extinction of Marin’s critically endangered coho salmon.

High profile signers included Dr. Peter Moyle of UC Davis, considered to be the top State expert on California’s salmon; Dr. Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1990 to 1992; and renowned research biologist and Marin resident, Dr. John McCosker.

Specifically, the letter asks that:

“Any development within 100-foot setback from creeks should be strongly discouraged. New development in this buffer that is allowed should require mitigation if new structures or activities reduce the potential for rehabilitation of riparian habitat, even if it is currently disturbed by lawns, patios, etc.”

The letter goes on to emphasize the need to protect tributaries to salmon creeks, noting that without a network of ephemeral streams to mitigate flooding and other important natural protections, the natural habitats will not be able to support the salmon lifecycle. (Read the letter here:http://www.spawnusa.org/pages/page-324.)

Marin County’s Decision Have Far Reaching Effects

Renowned salmon expert, Dr. Peter Moyle of the University of California (Davis), noted that the impact of the statute goes beyond the county and will likely threaten the Central California coho population as a whole.

“We are asking that the County implement strong, enforceable protections for endangered Lagunitas coho. The lack of protections in the headwaters of the San Geronimo watershed can affect the status of coho not only in the Lagunitas watershed but along the entire central California coast. Coho have largely disappeared from their native range because of thousands of small actions that destroyed habitat. Their recovery will consequently take thousands of small actions as well. Marin County and the landowners in the San Geronimo watershed can thus be leaders in coho restoration by taking action to protect the creek,” said Dr. Peter Moyle.

Dr. Moyle is an author of the recent “SOS: California’s Native Fish Crisis, Status of and solutions for restoring our vital salmon, steelhead and trout populations” which determined that coho salmon are the most endangered salmon species in California and face sure extinction if current trends persist. Lagunitas Creek Watershed salmon currently represent the largest-remaining wild run of this species along the entire Central California coast and hold the key to recovery of populations in the region.

Current Proposal Means Death to Important Indicator Species

Debbie Sivas, a Stanford Law School professor, with an MS in Ecology, said “Wild populations of coho are hanging on by a thread across California, and the County is still allowing destruction of habitat and with passage of this ordinance will begin approving developments that compromise their future in the most important watershed we have left.” She continued, “Coho are an indicator species, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Without meaningful and enforced regulations to protect habitat and balance restoration efforts, we will continue losing ground and lose a treasured California species and the ecosystem which they define.”

“This ordinance will legitimize more than half a million square feet of new construction in the so-called 100-foot buffer– that’s the same as building two Costco SuperStores, just in the tiny, ten-square mile San Geronimo Valley alone,” said Todd Steiner, wildlife biologist and executive director of SpawnUSA.org.

He continued, “Is this current draft a conservation ordinance or a `Coho Salmon Death Warrant?'”

Exacerbating the threat to the coho salmon, the ordinance does not even include basic provisions to offset the corresponding habitat destruction. Steiner further noted, “mitigation offsets are a standard environmental protection tool under both state and federal programs when critical habitat for endangered species is destroyed by real estate development, but the loopholes in this ordinance means that little to no mitigation will ever be required.”

Currently, the SCA ordinance allows for new development up to 620 square feet on both sides of any creek destroying habitat without any mitigation to restore the valuable riparian cover that provides shade to keep water cool as well as insect food sources–both critical factors is salmon population recovery.

Previous boards of supervisors have failed to enact meaningful protections though there has been ample opportunity to do so. The enduring hope of Steiner and the scientists who have signed onto the letter is that this board will vote for a Conservation Area ordinance that promotes Marin’s environmental legacy and improves the chances for the coho salmon to repopulate before it’s too late.

“If the Supervisors move ahead and pass this weak regulation, which has been rejected by the scientific community, I fear it will become impossible for them to continue to compete successfully for State and federal funds available for salmon restoration. This would further dismantle their landowner assistance program and hurt the chances of recovering the magnificent coho salmon,” Steiner concluded.

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SPAWN, the Salmon Protection And Watershed Network (www.SpawnUSA.org), works to protect endangered coho salmon, steelhead and the creeks in Marin County, California’s Lagunitas Creek Watershed through education, restoration, advocacy, strategic litigation, research and monitoring. SPAWN is an initiative of Turtle Island Restoration Network (www.TIRN.net), which is headquartered in Marin County, CA. Turtle Island has over 60,000 supporters and on-line activists.

B-roll and photos available. Call Todd Steiner, (415) 488-7652