Taking their cue from the Bay Area’s recent rains, endangered Coho salmon have cranked up their annual spawning ritual this week in the creeks of West Marin County.

All along the Lagunitas Creek, large female salmon, known as ‘reds’ for their bright red color, could be seen carving out nests and fending off aggressive males who compete to inseminate her newly laid eggs.

“The reason why we’re seeing so many fish at once is because we’ve had eight weeks with no rain,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of the advocacy group S.P.A.W.N. “We’re seeing a whole season run of fish in one week.”

The fish prefer to travel under cloudy, rainy conditions – making the trek from ocean to the creek beds where they hatched three years ago. With last weekend’s rain, a constant run of salmon delighted observers by leaping up cascading falls and frolicking just off the banks of the Leo Cronin observation area. The sight of so many fish has drawn hundreds of visitors to the banks,
armed with binoculars and cameras.

“Nature is happening right here in this beautiful spot,” said Pam Anderson of the Golden West Fly Fishers. “How fortunate we are.”

The sudden appearance of the fish bodes well for efforts to bring them back from the edge of extinction.  Steiner said five years ago, there were 500 salmon nests in the Lagunitas Watershed, a warren of creeks and streams in the Marin County Water District.  Three years ago, environmentalists were dismayed to county only 26 nests.

Steiner estimates there will be anywhere from 100 – 150 nests this year, though he said it’s difficult to know how much is the result of the compressed season.

“It is still really dire,” said Steiner, peering through the brush where a large salmon was drifting with the current. “We need to see better controls on development along these streams if our children and grandchildren are going to get to witness this into the future.”

Steiner’s group has filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming its efforts to protect the fish by limiting development have fallen short.  In the interim, the county recently put a limit on the number of trees residents living along the creek could cut down. The move, over the protests of some neighbors, was meant to reduce the man-made pressures on the salmon’s habitat.

Lagunitas resident Fred Berensmeirer lugged a video camera and tri-pod along the banks of the creek this week, taking aim at the plethora of Coho cavorting 15 yards away. He said the resurgence of the salmon this year is a good sign for the efforts to protect the Lagunitas Watershed salmon, one of the most significant spawning grounds in California.

“When they come back, we know things are healthy here,” said Berensmierer. “The creek is healthy, and it really makes us feel good.”

See the full interview here.

Photo/Angela Hadden