fry get a lift downstream

David Briggs
Volunteers with SPAWN are hoping to save young salmon from death in the evaporating creek.

Every three years, hundreds of Central California coho salmon make a daring journey from Tomales Bay to Japan, to the frosted creeks of Alaska, before returning to West Marin. For thousands of years, the end of their lifecycle has taken place in the Lagunitas Creek watershed, but for the last 40 their majestic route has become nearly impossible to even begin. Among the things that have helped curb this species’ spiral toward extinction are the hands of a caring human population.

“The amazing thing about these animals is that they always come back to the place they were born,” said Todd Steiner, founder and director of Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), an organization that has worked to restore the endangered salmon population since 1999. “It’s not easy for them to get up here. They have to pass through [numerous] culverts.” The concrete or metal passageways that divert water under road crossings are among the obstacles preventing these coho from completing their journey.

Since the 1970s, over 40 percent of coho streams of California have lost their historic runs. According to the Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Coalition, from Smith River near the border of Oregon to as far south as Scott River in Siskiyou County, 25 streams have intermittent runs of very few fish, and only a few streams retain self-sustaining runs of the once abundant species.

San Geronimo Creek is home to the largest remaining wild run of coho in Central California, and Mr. Steiner, along with his team of restoration and watershed scientists and volunteers, have made it their job to keep it that way.

This month, armed with nets and buckets, SPAWN teams are moving the young coho, or fry, along with steelhead trout fry and the occasional Chinook salmon fry, from the shallow stretches of creek through San Geronimo Valley into deeper waters.

“Oh my god, I caught one!” Brittany Bartlett, a young blonde volunteer, shouted as she reached into her net. Two black-eyed bugs stared back at her. “You wanted a pet right?” SPAWN member Andy Harris said. “I want a puppy, not that!” she answered. Catching the fry can be tedious, and the team only has two or three weeks to work, before the shallows dry up.

Even more tedious than catching the fry is analyzing them. “A steelhead, owe!” Jonathan Applebaum, a SPAWN restoration scientist, howled. “Twenty-five to 30 [millimeters]. Little guy.” One by one, Mr. Applebaum measured the length of each fish. He also weighs them, but only the first ten of each species. “If I had to take full weight of all the salmon we catch, we would never finish,” he said.

After determining the species of each fry, Mr. Applebaum moves the fish to another bucket supported by a tube and small aeration pump. “Looks like we’ve got all steelheads today,” he said. Steelhead trout are cousins of the salmon. Though they aren’t endangered like the coho, they are threatened.  

Besides rescuing fish from shallow waters, SPAWN is involved in road restoration and placing wood debris in creeks to help create cover, habitat stability and resting areas for the salmon. “It’s not just for the fish,” Aaron Fairbrook, a SPAWN watershed scientist, explained. “Our work benefits people as well. Large wood debris helps to protect land owners’ banks from erosion.”

Road restoration projects, which include repairing and reshaping roads to allow gentler water flow from rain runoff, not only lead to cleaner salmon habitats, but safer roads for driving, he said. Regardless of existing tensions between SPAWN and some valley residents, when it comes to the direct aid of the local endangered species, everyone wants to help. “Everyone does care about the creek and the fish, we just have different methods,” Mr. Fairbrook said.

For Lagunitas homeowner Lois Hansen, helping the coho means getting her feet wet. “We’ve been saving these little fish ever since I first lived here in 1970,” she said. “I used to take the window screens from my house and go with my kids down to the creek and pull them out.” Now that Ms. Hansen is getting older, she says it’s time for the younger generation to do the work.

And the team has seen progress. “Last year we saw between two and five [salmon nests], this year there was around 55,” Mr. Fairbrook said.

“Okay, let’s get this batch over to release,” Mr. Applebaum said, after measuring his 136th steelhead of the day. The men gathered the batches of fish into one bucket, which Mr. Fairbrook put it into his truck. “We’re going to save the salmon eventually,” he said.

After a five-point turn he was off, with Ms. Bartlett in tow and Mr. Steiner following close behind. The team drove down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to their usual release location, and made their way down a steep dirt hillside to the creek below. “You want to do the honors?” Mr. Fairbrook asked, handing Ms. Bartlett the bucket. She took the container and slowly emptied it into the water. “Bye guys, have a good day!” she said, watching the tiny fish scamper away in the fresh water.