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Marin Creek’s Fragile Salmon Get Extra Help

A fragile population of coho salmon in the Lagunitas Creek watershed has had its federal status changed from “threatened” to “endangered,” affording the fish more legal protection.

“The Lagunitas watershed now supports the largest documented population of coho salmon in California, yet we have 500 or less females returning to spawn each year,” said Paola Bouley, watershed biologist with the Forest Knolls-based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network.

In reviewing those numbers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service changed the status of the coho under the federal Endangered Species Act. It was one of several changes made to fish species along the West Coast.

“This policy reinforces our commitment to protect naturally spawning salmon and their ecosystem,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, an NOAA administrator.

An endangered species is considered in imminent danger of extinction, while a threatened species is experiencing serious threats that may lead to its extinction. An endangered listing gives animal species protection under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the “take” of a federally listed endangered species.

Take is defined as to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect.”

“This ruling for coho underscores the precarious and fragile nature of our local salmon species and the importance of protecting and continuing to restore the Lagunitas watershed coho,” said Todd Steiner, director of SPAWN.

The practical impact of the change is minimal, but it does highlight the importance of the Lagunitas Creek watershed and the effort to restore coho, officials said.

There have been many efforts to help coho populations in recent years. The Marin Municipal Water District – which manages the watershed – spends about $460,000 annually on its fisheries programs, largely aimed at improving habitat.

In the 1940s, Lagunitas Creek helped contribute to a statewide historic high of 500,000 coho salmon. At Lagunitas Creek, the largest coho salmon in state history – 22 pounds and 36 inches long – was caught in January 1959.

But today’s salmon population is 1 percent of that – a decline caused primarily by a loss of free-flowing creeks and rivers that have been affected by development, culverts, dams and other obstacles, officials said.

Despite the endangered listing, the coho population is on the comeback in Marin, with increasing numbers appearing in the Lagunitas watershed – and increasing reports from sport fishermen hooking cohos off the Marin coast. Such fish must be released.

Lagunitas Creek and its tributaries are among the state’s prime coho salmon spawning grounds, and a host of groups are working to keep the species stable.

Efforts to restore the coho population were launched in the 1980s by the late Leo Cronin, a fisheries activist who served a term on the Marin Municipal Water District Board, where he was known as “Mr. Fish.”

Coho spawn in the Lagunitas watershed each winter after the fish, which weigh up to 12 pounds, leave the ocean and travel miles up local streams to lay their eggs. Spawning continues into late winter.

Young fry will repeat the same journey, if they are lucky enough to survive predation, heavy rains, dry summers or other risks, which are many and sometimes unexpected. Coho have been preyed on by river otters that have been eating salmon in Lagunitas Creek the past two years.

The 2- to 6-inch fry emerge in the creek and stay about 18 months, then head out to the open ocean and spend another 18 months before they return to the creeks, spawn and die – a three-year life cycle.

“Lagunitas is a unique and vital creek in the realm of the coho population in California. That fact, as much as anything, is highlighted by this decision,” said Greg Andrew, a fisheries biologist with the MMWD.