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It’s Now Or Never for Critically Endangered Coho Salmon in Marin County

Recognized to be the keystone to recovery of extirpated populations along the entire Central California coast, the largest remaining wild-run of these magnificent fish is now teetering on the brink of extinction in Marin County’s Lagunitas Creek Watershed.

The federal government’s Coho Salmon Recovery Coordinator, Charlotte Ambrose, recently announced, “We are in an extinction vortex… The species is collapsing… We are at a point of trying to prevent their extinction.” The world renowned journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported the extinction crisis of Lagunitas coho in their January 29th issue, highlighting the regional and national importance of this population.

The just-released federal Coho Recovery Plan confirms that one of the most important populations of critically endangered coho salmon let in Central California exists in Marin – in the Lagunitas Creek Watershed.

Two years ago, under a settlement agreement with the Marin-based organization SPAWN, the County of Marin enacted a two-year moratorium on new development within 100-feet of coho-bearing streams in the San Geronimo Valley, a critical headwaters to Lagunitas Creek, where up to 50 percent of the population spawns and 40% of the young fish that eventually head out to sea are produced. As part of the agreement, the County hired independent scientists to write an Existing Conditions Report and Salmon Enhancement Plan to guide future land use policies and protections.

The reports are finished, and both studies clearly document that past and continuing loss of viable streamside and refuge habitat to development is a major factor that needs to be addressed, if there is any hope of protecting this critical habitat and eventually recovering the species to its full potential.

Yet, the moratorium ended on February 11th, and after waiting almost three years, the recently circulated draft County vegetation ordinance was so weak that the County Planning Commission rejected it and rewrote a common sense reasonably protective ordinance that will go to the County Supervisors on August 10th.

Common sense protections are good for endangered salmon, people and a myriad of wildlife species. The San Geronimo Valley lies upstream of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Tomales Bay (part of the Farallones National Marin Sanctuary) and Point Reyes National Seashore. The very high levels of documented pathogens from failing septic systems leaching directly into San Geronimo Valley creeks, along with nutrients, household chemicals and sediments stemming from poor land use policies and management, empty directly into these downstream protected areas.

These pollutants not only impact our endangered salmon, but also impact the millions of Americans who visit our local Parks, and who now find warning signs advising them to avoid contact with creek waters at favorite swimming holes. High fecal coliform counts also means our local oyster farms downstream in Tomales Bay are impacted, diminishing our local food resources as well as the spiritual nourishment we receive from enjoying unpolluted nature.

If we are to save the Bay Area’s totem salmon species from extinction, County Supervisors must go beyond the current politically pain-free rhetoric that somehow “voluntary actions” by local landowners will magically lead to the needed changes of decades of poor land-use planning that has contributed to the current extinction crisis we are now facing.

While education and incentives are important parts of a balanced conservation toolbox, Supervisors must also meet their legal obligations to pursue and enforce common-sense regulations that not only protect coho habitat, but which simultaneously protect Marin’s environment, and protect the public trust of all Californians for future generations.

Please let Marin Supervisors know you want them to take effective action on August 10th to prevent continued loss of streamside habitat in the most important watershed left for wild salmon in the Bay Area. We’ve waited almost 3 years for action, and the time has come.