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Gov Newson releases "California Salmon Strategy" that might help salmon in Marin County Creeks

February 17, 2024 at 7:24 p.m.

A new state-level plan to protect salmon is underway, and it might benefit Marin County’s fish.

The “California Salmon Strategy” was released by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 30. It lists six priorities and 71 actions to build healthier, stronger salmon populations throughout the state in the age of climate change-induced drought and heat.

The six goals are removing barriers and modernizing infrastructure; restoring and expanding habitat suited for spawning and rearing; protecting water flows and quality at times essential to salmon; modernizing salmon hatcheries; transforming technology and management systems for climate adaptability; and strengthening partnerships with local groups.

Local experts in Marin think the emphasis on technology, hatcheries and removing barriers to fish in particular could have a significant impact on the county’s salmon population. Still, some noted that the strategy largely focuses on chinook salmon and not coho salmon, which are much more prevalent in the area.

“It makes sense because that’s the commercial species that we have here in California so even though locally we have endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead, chinook salmon have a much larger economic importance to California,” said Michael Reichmuth, a fisheries biologist with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Eric Ettlinger, an aquatic ecologist with the Marin Municipal Water District, said the plan is consistent with what the salmon restoration community has been doing for years.

Ettlinger said he is particularly excited about the plan to expand the use of technologies, such as antennas and tagging, to help track the health of salmon populations. It is something the district has been doing for years, he said.

“We’re going to tag more fish, we’re going to have more antennas, and that will allow us to investigate which fish are surviving and which fish aren’t and help us identify the kinds of habitats that the fish are lacking and ways that we can help them,” Ettlinger said.

Reichmuth said more tagging, especially of fish that are from hatcheries, will be especially important for local salmon.

He said stray chinook salmon have been spotted in creeks across the county. Tagging will help identify where these lost fish are coming from and better inform the state about salmon releasing strategies.

There is concern the chinook salmon, which are often from the Central Valley, could outcompete the coho and steelhead for resources because they are not usually found in those areas, according to Reichmuth.

Lagunitas Creek — a key salmon habitat in the county — is limited, and while removing any physical barriers could help salmon access it, Ettlinger said a bigger issue is the gravel.

Ettlinger said the creek needs more spawning gravel, a kind of gravel that is small enough that salmon can move it around and porous enough to allow oxygen to flow through. Gravel that is too sandy will suffocate eggs, and if the water flow is too strong the eggs could be washed away.

“The upper part of Lagunitas Creek, the spawning opportunities are limited partly because the dam upstream limits gravel from traveling downstream, and it’s the gravel the fish lay their eggs in,” Ettlinger said.

The water district has received grant funding to add thousands of tons of spawning gravel to the creek for at least a year, and Ettlinger hopes the state strategy will help keep that project moving forward.

Reichmuth said he is interested in the plan’s focus on conservation hatcheries. Most hatcheries provide salmon for angling and to supplement the natural population. A conservation approach, which includes mimicking natural conditions in salmon diet and habitat and raising them to different life stages, could impact populations positively.

“Conservation hatcheries are really for trying to rebuild populations,” Reichmuth said. “I think that the fact in the strategy it’s stated, increasing the number of conservation hatcheries, shows that we’ve started to switch that mindset a little bit to not just putting fish out there but to actually focus on using hatcheries to really rebuild populations.”

Reichmuth also said he was pleased to see that the state salmon strategy encouraged the removal of barriers, especially culverts, which can prevent fish from accessing habitat if water levels are low. The plan specifically urged Caltrans to speed up its projects.

“I know along Highway 1, they have numerous culverts that have been on Caltrans’ list for replacement, and so hopefully we’ll finally see some of those get replaced so the fish have better access,” Reichmuth said.

Reichmuth mentioned a culvert in Olema Creek, which flows into Lagunitas Creek, that fish can only get through when creek levels are higher, such as during winter storms.

Todd Steiner, the executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said he is glad that Newsom is seeing salmon as a priority. He thought the fact that Lagunitas Creek was mentioned in the plan was promising.

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