Myths about coho and Marin County’s watersheds


Well, son of a bitch and shiver me timbers. A report from one Eric Ettlinger, an “aquatic ecologist” with the Marin Municipal Water District, reports the sighting of 117 silver salmon (which in the last couple of decades have come be identified as coho, the term given by the natives of southern British Columbia), 74 chinook and two chum salmon in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. With respect to these latter species, did Houdini come back from the grave, or can we thank California’s uninformed and famously irresponsible Department of Fish and Wildlife? 

To my knowledge, there are no native chum anywhere in California, or in Oregon, for that matter. In fact, I can’t think of a sighting south of Washington State. In the same vein, chinook, also called king salmon, are not native to any coastal stream in California south of the Eel River, which enters the sea at Arcata. Yet here in West Marin, we have a report of a male chum trying to spawn with a female chinook while driving off rivals, finally biting and wounding her. Further, “These species can’t hybridize, so hopefully the female chinook survived the encounter and eventually spawned with her own kind. Male coho have also been seen attempting to spawn with female chinook, maybe because these extra large females are simply irresistible.” I’m pretty sure Walt Disney is dead, but wow, I’d like to know where she buys her makeup. 

If, in fact, there are non-native salmon in Marin County’s largest watershed, someone or some agency illegally put them there and should be prosecuted for a serious environmental crime. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has historically never given one long hoot about the silver salmon. They did not bother to collect reliable data, and never assembled one single meaningful statistic. They did not know, nor did they care to know, the size of the runs in rivers such as the San Lorenzo, Russian, Gualala, Garcia, Noyo, Albion, Navarro, Big, Mattole, Eel and Klamath, or in any of the creeks like the Waddell, Pescadero, Redwood, Bolinas, Papermill, Salmon, Alder and so on. I tried to construct a rough count a few years ago of the total silvers in California, but it was too complicated and too big. Fish and Wildlife has said it was 150,000. I gave up at 2 million, and that’s just what I knew about. 

The contention often made in recent years that the largest remaining population of silver salmon (that would be 117 fish at this writing) is in Lagunitas Creek is a complete fiction. At this point there is no person or entity that knows the truth. Along with the Coast Guard and other federal and state agencies, Fish and Wildlife turned a deaf ear to the complaints of commercial fishermen and ordinary citizens in the early 1980s about the piracy going on by foreign factory ships to within a mile of the coast under the cover of darkness. Residents of small communities like Point Arena, Mendocino and Fort Bragg reported being awakened by the throbbing of engines and looked out to see what looked like a town floating close to shore. As a result, the silver salmon, which live at the surface and travel in schools, were easily scooped up en masse during these protein sweeps; within only two or three years, the silvers were reduced to the brink of extinction simultaneously in every single stream in California, and southern Oregon as well. It would be bad enough if those fish were caught to feed people, but they were not. Instead, along with every other living thing the vast nets entrapped, they were processed into food for the fast-growing fish farming business. 

So now, in some kind of twisted public relations ploy, Fish and Wildlife is planting silvers in Dry Creek on the Russian River near Healdsburg, where they were never present historically, and covertly in Walker Creek near Tomales, the single stream on the entire northern California coast that never supported a run in recorded history. 

And for those who believe what they read in newspapers, there is no such thing as San Geronimo Creek, at least not until about 20 years ago, when it became the focus for the inane and shameless controversy that has been played out there. The branch from Shafter’s up through Lagunitas, Forest Knolls, San Geronimo and finally Woodacre was always called Lagunitas Creek. Woodacre residents called the top end of it Woodacre Creek. In the days before the war, when Lagunitas was mostly summer homes, some called it Lagunitas all the way to Point Reyes Station. However, the main fork now blocked by Carson Dam was the site of a paper mill, and to most people the main stem was Papermill Creek. On the Green Bridge it’s stenciled as Lagunitas Creek. The official signs went missing at about the same time unofficial signs were erected in Lagunitas where that creek flows under Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, declaring it to be San Geronimo Creek. Now who would have done such a thing, and why? 

Clearly, you long-suffering, beleaguered residents of the San Geronimo Valley don’t know that your little trickle never was and is not critical habitat for the silver salmon as has been claimed. In fact, it is one of the least important in the Lagunitas, Papermill, Nicasio and Olema watersheds. Steelhead, on the other hand, are a different story. Woodacre is an important spawning area for them. But of the perhaps 50,000 fish in the historic silver run, I can promise you not more than 300 used the beautifully designed Roy’s fish ladder before it was senselessly destroyed as part of a despicable public relations scam. Lagunitas Creek always was in good shape, and as far as I can tell, still is. Either way, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the disappearance of the salmon, and no so-called improvements to it are going to assist in bringing them back. 

My father brought me to Lagunitas Creek as a child on weekends right after the war ended in 1946. We swam, fished and netted crawfish by the bucketful in Samuel P. Taylor Park. In 1949 we moved to San Anselmo. I was obsessed with fish and fishing, and if anyone should be interested, I can take them by the hand and walk them to every single place in Marin County where steelhead and silver salmon spawned; a significant part of this area now lies at the bottom of Kent and Nicasio Lakes. 

Some silvers, and steelhead too, spawned as low in the Papermill system as a mile upstream from Point Reyes Station. The bulk of the silvers, however, used the main creek from the mouth of Nicasio Creek, through the park, and on up past Carson Dam clear to the base of Alpine Dam. One of the most tragic sights I ever beheld was the year after Nicasio Dam blocked that critical watershed. An uncountable number of silvers, between 10,000 and 15,000, crowded into the mile from the gravel company to the base of the dam. They were so thick that many were forced out onto the banks, where they died without spawning. 

When it was announced recently that the silver run in Redwood Creek was feared to be extinct, some spokesman for Fish and Wildlife assured us it was due to “environmental degradation.” In Muir Woods? Really? The 3,000 salmon that used to run in that creek vanished at exactly the same time as the mega millions of others. Unfortunately, all silver salmon populations are now so drastically below critical mass that they can never be brought back unless we put in place an effective oceanic police force to protect the United States’ territorial waters, and then spend billions of dollars over the coming 50 years to bring them back, rivulet by rivulet. 

One last thing before I sign off on this rant. I would like to ask, or challenge if need be, reporters, whether they are local, state or national, to please honor the code under which they are supposed to be working: investigate, then check your facts. 


From 1950 until their sudden disappearance in the early 1980s, Russell Chatham caught and released several thousand silver salmon in Marin County alone. He has fished every country in the world where all salmon and sea trout run, and in 1966 he caught the world record striped bass on a fly in San Francisco Bay. He is the author of several books about fly fishing, including “The Angler’s Coast,” considered the definitive work about northern California.


Editor’s note

We were at first skeptical about a number of the points Russell Chatham raises on the opposing page. We know he has logged more hours on Marin waterways over the last several decades than almost anyone, that he is a keen observer (look at his paintings) and devoted to understanding fish (look at his books). He’s spent a lifetime seeking out information from other fishermen and digging into historical accounts. But we did take his advice and, in the time permitted for this week’s edition, we ran his reflections past a couple people we felt would have another valid perspective on the history of salmon in our watersheds.

We talked to Manfred Kittel, the coho recovery coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Sure enough, one of Russ’s fundamental points checked out: the agency doesn’t have much data. When it comes to the historical population of the state’s coho salmon, they only have a wild guess. (Wildly lower than Russ’s own estimate.) According to Mr. Kittel, there are numerous monitoring projects now taking place statewide, funded by grants from Fish and Wildlife.The one overseen by Marin Municipal Water District is the oldest continuous program. But, he said, there are innumerable areas where no data is being collected. (The intensive monitoring in Lagunitas Creek made us wonder whether that monitoring itself has exaggerated the relative importance given to Marin’s coho habitat.) Russ also says the oft-made claim that Lagunitas Creek supports the largest remaining population of coho is pure fiction; Mr. Kittel told us that’s indeed the general belief about central California. The Eel River, further north, has a much larger run. It’s a much larger watershed.

Rewinding to the start of Russ’s column: It’s true that neither chum nor Chinook are native to Marin’s watersheds, though Chinook began appearing as far south as Sacramento decades ago, Mr. Kittel said. Whether the presence of these species in Lagunitas Creek indicates that someone dropped them there is debatable: a small amount of straying, the phenomenon by which an anadromous fish returns to a different stream to spawn than the one in which it was born, is a “normal part of a healthy population.” But the 74 chinook seen in Lagunitas recently do seem like a large number to have strayed.

The two disagree on the importance of San Geronimo Creek: Russ claims this was never an important area for coho spawning, and he told us he’s walked it a hundred times. Mr. Kittel called it a significant sub-watershed through which coho may pass on their journey to spawn. 

This point is important because of the ongoing debate over development in the San Geronimo Valley, so we also reached out to Greg Andrew, Marin Municipal Water District’s fishery program manager. Mr. Andrew called San Geronimo Creek “extremely important” for spawning coho, and said in some years the majority of the Lagunitas Creek run spawns there. It also serves as a rearing ground for young coho—and steelhead trout—in summer months. 

Russ claims Fish and Wildlife is “covertly” planting coho in Walker Creek. It’s true, they are—but it doesn’t seem too covert. Mr. Kittel said releases started in 2004 and occur with the participation of Marin Municipal Water District, occasionally with landowners and even with the involvement of kids at Walker Creek Ranch, where the releases take place. (“We don’t write newspaper articles when we plant coho,” he quipped.) We think Russ’s contention that Walker Creek never did support a coho run may very well be true; he has not found a single account of a coho there, despite offering “huge rewards to historical societies” for evidence. Mr. Andrew cited anecdotal evidence of a population; when pressed  for details he mentioned one nearby rancher’s story of seeing fish in the creek so thick you could walk on them, and he sent a chronology that said in the 1930s one could drive a horse and buggy across the creek during spawning season. According to Mr. Kittel, despite the years of planting, there are still no fish to speak of in Walker Creek.

We value what folks who spend their lives on streams and rivers have to say; as a fisherman, Russ cares as much about the survival of salmon as does someone from an advocacy group. He’s not beholden to a political agenda, he’s not trying to acquire funding or influence policy. Still, we gather that there is a more unknown than is known about the history of salmon and the causes of their decline. As we’ve felt for years about the Bolinas fishing fleet, which is facing giant financial hurdles with increasing marine restrictions, we wish the people making the rules would spend a lot more time picking the brains of the people on the ground—or on the water—before making grand conclusions. And maybe some of you who are interested in the survival of salmon, that mystical fish, should take Russ up on his offer, and get a hand-held tour of Marin.