Marin’s vanishing coho salmon may have gotten a boost Thursday with the release of a federal recovery plan that aims to bring the population back from the brink of extinction.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service published a plan in the Federal Register that will serve as a road map for restoring endangered central California coho salmon – Oncorhynchus kisutch – to coastal rivers and streams along the state’s coast.
The ambitious plan aims to restore coho over 50 years and would cost $3 billion to $5 billion. The plan’s release kicks off a 60-day public comment period that will end May 17.
“These fish have a difficult time overcoming the natural perils of drought, poor ocean conditions and predation,” said Charlotte Ambrose, a fisheries biologist and recovery coordinator for the fisheries service. “We must at least give them the habitat necessary to survive, and this recovery plan, with the help of the local community, can do just that.”
The plan identifies specific actions that can be taken around the state, including in local watersheds, such as Lagunitas, Walker, Redwood and Pine Gulch creeks.
Among the steps suggested in the plan: increase spawning, pool and channel habitats; remove barriers; increase the amount of wood in streams; improve shade to cool streams; decrease the number of roads near streams and reduce the impact of remaining roads.
While the plan does not provide money, it will enable local agencies and groups that work on these issues, such as the Marin Municipal Water District, the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network and others, to get funds, officials said.
“It will allow agencies to point to something that will help them get grants for specific work to help coho,” said Maura Moody, fisheries biologist with the fisheries service. “It may sound like a big price tag, but it not only benefits the fish, but people. We are talking about jobs to do this work, and a healthy fishery. It also helps the watershed and other species as well.”
Any help for the coho can’t come too soon.
Coho salmon were once abundant in the tributaries along the central California coast, from Aptos Creek near Santa Cruz in the south, to Punta Gorda above Fort Bragg in the north. Historical records estimate populations were as high as 125,000 as late as the 1940s.Ê
But as human population and development increased along the desirable coastal areas, coho numbers plummeted to fewer than 6,000. That the species is in trouble is not a surprise. The federal government listed the species as threatened in October 1996 and in June 2005 it was re-listed as endangered.
Marin’s coho population is on the verge of collapse. For the third straight year the number of coho egg nests – which spawn the next generation of fish – were down significantly.
Marin’s Lagunitas watershed has one of the largest remaining populations of wild coho salmon in Northern California, but the fish virtually vanished last year. While this winter the migration from the ocean was slightly larger, it was still well below average.
Only 67 coho salmon were seen this winter in the Lagunitas Creek watershed; by comparison, the best year of the decade was the winter of 2004, when 1,342 fish were counted.
To protect fish, the county imposed a two-year moratorium on construction near creeks in the San Geronimo Valley that ended Feb. 11. Applauded by some, the moratorium raised concern from some residents who worry about proposed development guidelines in the area.
The new federal report shows the San Geronimo Valley as a critical area for the fish.
“It highlights how important this area is and how we need to take very urgent steps to protect this habitat,” said Paola Bouley, conservation director at the Forest Knolls-based SPAWN. “Now the federal government is saying it. It’s based on science.”