When it comes to salmon, trust the trained biologists

01/08/2015

I was shocked to read an opinion piece you printed titled “The myths about coho,” written by a local self-described fisherman. I will not go into the various conspiracies suggested by Russell Chatham about Roy’s ladder and San Geronimo Creek’s name, but will instead address some other cynical and misleading comments. 

Mr. Chatham broadly accuses the highly educated staff at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife of being “famously irresponsible” and for “never giving a hoot about salmon.” If the intent is to have a reasoned discussion about the status of the salmonids in the Lagunitas watershed, then some modest respect should be shown to the people whose job it is to protect these waterways. 

Concerned less for the salmon than for the “beleaguered residents of the San Geronimo Valley” (who want to double the size of their homes), the author seems to disapprove of any attempt to improve water quality by implementing reasonable regulations as called for by state and federal policies. I can think of no better means to improve water quality than through mandatory sewage filtration, sediment catches and code and efficiency standards that are improved over time. While Marin County’s commitment to regulatory compliance has been dreadful, the state and federal governments are inching toward more stringent protections for water quality and have been pressuring the county to implement proactive policies for years. 

The statement that “Salmon populations can never be brought back unless we spend billions” is both cynical and incorrect: by simply implementing existing policies we could have a substantial impact on water quality at a very low cost. Sadly our county supervisors do not have the courage or the will to do so. 

The first thing one learns in a college science course is that anecdotal observations are not an acceptable information source. Nor is the opinion of a local fisherman who never took a single aquatic biology course that could have fostered an understanding of the delicate relationships between species within a riparian corridor. Well-educated biologists, like those at SPAWN and M.M.W.D., are able to collect, monitor and explain relevant data. The arrogance of people who feel they know better reflects the fundamental disconnect of locals who treat this marvelous place as their personal playground. 

Biologists are aware of the myriad considerable impacts residential and light-commercial zones have on creeks, which must be addressed if we are to improve water quality and keep our salmon from following their brethren into extinction. Monitoring fish populations is only one aspect of gauging the health of a riparian corridor; repairing these systems requires understanding the relationships between these and other factors, and it is made difficult when individuals like Mr. Chatham claim that “nothing is known” about salmon in Lagunitas Creek or that San Geronimo Creek is not an important watershed. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

To the point of our watershed not being important, one of our top local biologists, Todd Steiner, recently said: 

 

“There is not a simple relationship between the number of juvenile salmon produced in our watershed and ocean conditions that determine the number of returning spawners. It is also influenced by the condition of the fish leaving our watershed when they migrate to sea... Small, weak, undernourished or diseased fish living in polluted water are much less likely to survive in the ocean and return to spawn even if ocean conditions are good—and even less so if they find poor ocean conditions… Unlike ocean conditions, which are beyond our ability to control, we do have the ability to either protect or continue to destroy stream habitats in our backyards.”

 

The thrust of Mr. Chatham’s argument is the same as that against global climate change: to deny there is any definitive evidence, or to insinuate that the data is faulty, and thereby conclude there is no problem. Thankfully such circular logic is ignored by officials who diligently collect data through standard observational means and attempt to implement reasonable development restrictions. I stand with those that actually care about the natural environment, value a healthy watershed and use academically appropriate means to collect critical data.
Attacking the way data has been collected, or attacking the people collecting the data, is a political tool of suppressing science, not a reasonable person’s attempt at debate. 

Data on the fish populations in California’s creeks have been maintained and actively studied for decades. There is an excellent resource for data on fish populations in our watershed on NOAA’s Fisheries Services website, at westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov. 

 

Brian Staley was born and raised in Marin County. He is a designer, builder and steering committee member for the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group with a lifelong interest in protecting the natural environment.