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Fish catch a ride to safer waters

More than a dozen fish hitched a ride in a Saturn station wagon yesterday – a journey that likely saved their lives.

In what has become an annual exercise, members of the Forest Knolls-based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) yesterday scooped up federally endangered baby coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout from drying creek pools and carried them to areas where water is more abundant.

About 16 steelhead made part of that journey in the station wagon after being picked up from one section of Arroyo Creek and dropped off in another section of the creek, where it joins San Geronimo Creek in the community of Lagunitas.

“We put them where we are certain there will be water flow the rest of the year,” said Paola Bouley, watershed biologist with SPAWN, who was joined by six volunteers yesterday armed with white nets.

Bouley and others believe development throughout the San Geronimo Valley has resulted in rainwater running too quickly down storm drains and not soaking into the ground and aquifers, which replenish and feed the creeks. As a result, the creeks go dry in summer and 5- to 6-month-old fish become stranded and die as pools dry.

Residents also pump creek water to water gardens, and there are other issues as well.

“As the pools start to shrink, they become like a dinner plate for predators,” Bouley said. “We have seen raccoon families that sit around and eat at these pools. It’s easy pickings for them.”

The late rains this year have helped conditions for fish. The fish rescue usually starts in May or June, but this year it is not occurring until now.

San Geronimo, Arroyo and El Cerrito creeks are part of the fertile Lagunitas Creek watershed. Lagunitas Creek and its tributaries are among the state’s prime coho salmon spawning grounds, contributing 10 percent of California’s coho population.

Each year during spawning season, people gather at points along the creek to watch the fish return from the o cean.
Chuck Jungeberg of San Rafael, along with other SPAWN volunteers, nets steelhead trout in Arroyo creek in Lagunitas, as part of their work to rescue juvenile fish trapped in drying creeks and transfer them to other wetter areas in Lagunitas Creek. IJ photos/Robert Tong

The 2- to 6-inch fry are the progeny of adult coho and steelhead that migrated from the Pacific Ocean last winter to spawn in creeks. The eggs hatched in late winter and early spring.

The fish must survive for 14 months in the creek system before they are big enough to go to sea. The fish being plucked from the pools must survive until next spring before they migrate to the ocean, biologists say.

There has been a steady increase in fish counts in the past decade, Bouley said.

“You find they are all hiding in the same place,” said SPAWN biologist Todd Steiner, as he thrust a white net into a muddy pool in El Cerrito Creek trying to nab fish. “We have been doing this for six years now and we are seeing results.”