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Marin Fish Plucked from Certain Death in Lagunitas

Helping hands gathered Wednesday morning along Barranca Creek in Lagunitas to save federally threatened steelhead trout from a certain death.

After the lush winter rains stopped, the young fish were stranded in shallow creeks that go dry in the summer months. Members of the Forest Knolls-based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network — SPAWN — have started plucking the fish from drying waterways and depositing them in creeks that are connected to flowing waterways.

That gives them a chance at life.

“Otherwise they would die, there are no two ways about it,” said Todd Steiner, who heads the group. “The creeks go dry. And we are lucky this year, there are fish to save.”

That has not been in the case in the past two years, as the number of endangered coho salmon in Marin took a precipitous drop. While their numbers were up this year, the rains that they used to swim up to smaller tributaries came too late, and they are again absent from the drying waterways.

But the late rains did help young steelhead trout, and that’s what volunteers focused on Wednesday at Barranca Creek, a tributary of San Geronimo Creek.

After the fish were counted and measured Wednesday, they were put into buckets and gently emptied into San Geronimo Creek. While the creek hardly is raging, it does have enough water to take the fish downstream to Tomales Bay and to the open sea.

Since SPAWN’s fish rescue program began in 1999, more than 18,000 juvenile coho and steelhead have been rescued by staff and volunteers.

The work is conducted under endangered species permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service and state Department of Fish and Game.

While coho and steelhead are the main focus of the life-savings efforts, other native fish found along with them also get a free ride. Non-natives are not so lucky.

“They become specimens,” Steiner said dryly.

Eric Ettlinger, aquatic ecologist for the Marin Municipal Water District, applauded SPAWN’s efforts. The water district helps manage fish populations in Mount Tamalpais creeks.

“It’s a fantastic education opportunity to get people to see the creeks and to get out and feel invested in the fish populations that are in their own backyards,” he said.