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Rain aids West Marin salmon spawn

The celebrated salmon of west Marin County are taking advantage of the badly needed rain and are wriggling their way in surprising numbers toward the creekside communities where they typically lay their eggs and die.

Dozens of coho salmon have been spotted leaping and splashing around in Lagunitas Creek and its tributaries to the delight of biologists, residents and tourists who are flocking to the lush San Geronimo Valley to watch the endangered fish navigate the rapids.

A preliminary survey by Marin Municipal Water District biologists counted 44 coho and 32 egg nests, or redds, in Lagunitas, San Geronimo and Devil’s Gulch over the past few days. That’s more salmon and eggs than researchers saw all of last year.

“We’ve already surpassed last year and we’re waiting for more,” said Christopher Pincetich, a watershed biologist for the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, or SPAWN. “It’s a good indication that we may have a decent salmon run this year compared to the last two years, which have been very poor, but we’re still a long ways from recovery.”
Counting fish

Eric Ettlinger, the aquatic ecologist for the water district, said salmon are laying eggs even in the smaller tributaries, like Olema and Redwood creeks.

Last winter, only 26 coho egg nests, or redds, were counted in the entire 102-square-mile watershed, the lowest number in the 15 years that records had been kept by SPAWN and the Marin Municipal Water District.

No fish at all were seen last winter in Devil’s Gulch and fewer than 10 fish were spotted in the other tributaries, Pincetich said.

The Lagunitas watershed, which winds 33 miles through the picturesque redwood and oak-studded valley on the northwest side of Mount Tamalpais, supports the largest wild run of salmon along the Central Coast and is considered a model for fish restoration around the state.
People all around

It is unique in that the primary spawning grounds are in the middle of developed communities. Some 40 percent of the coho in the watershed are hatched in tributaries surrounded by homes, golf courses, roads and horse corrals in the 9-square-mile San Geronimo Valley.

Coho in Central California were listed as endangered in 2005 under the Endangered Species Act. The plummeting population in the historically bountiful Lagunitas watershed is part of a catastrophic decline in the overall population of salmon along the West Coast over the past three years. So few chinook returned to spawn in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system the past two years that ocean fishing had to be banned in California and Oregon.

The problem in Marin was no doubt exacerbated by drought conditions that stranded scores of coho juveniles in drying pools last spring and summer.

Naturalists are hoping that the rain this winter will help revive the troubled species. Over the past few days, dozens of people have crowded into the Leo T. Cronin fish viewing area, near Samuel P. Taylor State Park, to watch the spawning salmon.
Hoping for better year

“It’s wonderful. The last rains really brought the salmon up,” said Megan Isadore, a volunteer naturalist from Forest Knolls who has led salmon viewing creek walks for 10 years. “It’s a good sign that we have enough rain to bring the salmon upstream. They are a very endangered species, so we’re hoping this will be a good year.”

The need for more water and the desire to protect salmon has been a delicate balancing act for Marin County, which uses the Lagunitas system as its primary source of drinking water. Seven dams have been built since 1873, blocking 50 percent of the historic salmon spawning habitat. The county, which is building a desalination plant to bolster a deficient water supply, recently completed a Salmon Habitat Enhancement Plan focused on Lagunitas Creek.

The number of fish spotted in the watershed so far is well below the historic average for this time of year, but, given the terrible showing last year, biologists are still encouraged.

“I’m optimistic,” Pincetich said. “We’ve seen salmon in the San Geronimo Valley and in the tributaries that had no salmon last year. You can get out of your car and look over the fence and there they are. So far so good.”

Seeing salmon

The best coho viewing areas in the Lagunitas Creek watershed:

— Leo T. Cronin salmon viewing area: just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard where the Shafter Bridge goes over Lagunitas Creek near Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Fish can also be seen from the Shafter Bridge at the Inkwells, a series of small waterfalls in San Geronimo Creek.

— Roy’s Pools: Salmon demonstrate the jumping skills in three pools below the former dam site, on San Geronimo Valley Drive, 5 miles west of Fairfax.

— Samuel P. Taylor State Park campground: Coho like to lay their eggs behind the park headquarters building, just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

© San Francisco Chronicle 2009