Biologist Preston Brown scampered down the rocks of the creek bank in Samuel P. Taylor State Park in West Marin County, stepping gingerly toward the water’s edge.
The creek was known as the “ink wells” because it resembled a series of hollowed-out bowls leading up stream. In a normal year, federally-endangered Coho salmon will leap from bowl to bowl on their way upstream to their spawning grounds. But this year’s lack of rain has made that same journey a harrowing venture.
“Normally this time of year there’s a lot more water running over the falls,” observed Brown, a watershed biologist with the environmental group S.P.A.W.N.
The Coho’s long, instinctive journey from ocean to birthing ground is triggered by rain – winter rains also fill in the creeks and streams making the passage easier.
Brown said this year, his group hasn’t recorded a single fish on the small tributaries that feed the larger creeks.
“They typically are spawning up in the valley this time of year,” Brown said. “But because of the lack of rain, a lot of the tributaries they normally spawn in are not even flowing with water.”
Naturalists point-out salmon have survived droughts in the past. But that was back when their numbers reached the thousands along the warren of meandering creeks and streams of West Marin. Now, their numbers are in the mid-hundreds during a good year.
“Every year the salmon don’t come back is another bad year for the salmon,” said Teri Shore of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “It continues to build toward their extinction unfortunately.”
Watershed managers with the Marin Municipal Water District recently increased water releases in the area in what are called “stimulant flows” because they can trigger the fish migration.
Greg Andrew, the district’s Fishery Program Manager said spotters recorded up to 130 salmon on the main creek in Samuel Taylor State Park so far this year. In a normal year of rain, the number is around 500. Still, he said the increased water flows may be helping.
Andrew said in the last 18 months, the area has received only about 44 inches of rain. He said in a normal year the number is between 52 – 58 inches.
During a walk Tuesday along the creek, Brown spotted a school of five salmon darting in and out of the shadows of a deep pool. A large female salmon was accompanied by several males near her nest, known as a "red." Although the migration usually winds up around January, Brown was hopeful Mother Nature might still turn on the waterworks in time for this year's returning fish.
“Hopefully that can improve over the next few months if we do get some rain,” he said.