Small signs of hope for endangered coho salmon

November 29, 2011 7:15:52 PM PST
In Marin County, wild coho salmon are teetering on the verge of extinction. ABC7 got a rare look Tuesday at a few of the fish that swam upstream to spawn, as scientists look for signs of hope.

"The U.S. Fishery Service has declared the California coast coho critically endangered and in an extinction vortex," says biologist and Spawn USA director Todd Steiner.

Those grim words come as a dramatically shrinking number of coho salmon return to their Marin County spawning grounds. Historically, 5,000 nesting females have laid eggs in Lagunitas Creek each fall. But six years ago there were only 500 and three years ago just 26.

And this year, though it's still early...

"We've had about four to five nests so far," says Steiner.

Steiner has been watching those nesting salmon for the past week. He showed us video of females laying their eggs in the gravel and covering them up. The babies will hatch in the spring, live in the creek for a year and then head to the ocean. When they're fully grown they will come back to the exact spot where they hatched.

"Unfortunately the problem is they have to have habitat to come back to," says Steiner. "They have to have cold clean water that's well shaded and has a forest along the streams because that provides the food and the shelter the fish need to survive."

Steiner says the problem is people. People build roads and houses, and when it rains, the water runs off them and into the creeks.

"We've built our houses right along the creeks, people have armored the creeks, they've raised the sides of the creek so that they don't flood -- people don't want floods -- but floods are what fish need," he explains.

Instead of flooding their banks, reinforced creeks just rise and run faster, often killing the salmon.

There are some efforts to restore the salmon's habitat like an erosion control project which will help keep sand from sliding into the creek and trapping the young fish when they hatch.

Last spring, state workers released hundreds of hatchery salmon into Marin's creeks hoping some will make it back to spawn. If just one out of every thousand returns to lay eggs, they'll call it a success.

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