The Death Dance of the Coho Salmon

Thrashing fish promise hope for troubled fishery

Through the moss covered woods of Marin County, biologist Paula Bouley’s footsteps broke the otherwise quiet babbling of the Lagunitas Watershed.

She stepped over a small gate and pointed to the creek below. A flash of water was followed by a streak of deep red, as a male Coho salmon broke the surface.

“There are two males and they’re chasing each other around,” she said, peering through binoclulars, “competing for the female.”

This drama of jealousy, birth and ultimately death is playing out in the watershed as the Coho return to the area to spawn. Winter storms have filled the creeks with water, signaling a beginning to their annual pilgrimage.
“Winter rains are really critical for the salmon that come in to spawn in the winter,” said Bouley who works for the environmental group SPAWN. “They need those flows to help bring them into our watershed.”
Down the banks of the river, Bouley pointed to a female salmon churning up the gravely creek bed with her tail. The nest she is building is called a red. It’s where she will lay her eggs and wait for a male to fertilize them. In the meantime, younger males try to compete for the job. In just a few days the new parents will die, signaling an end to the annual ritual.
For now, Bouley is excited. Last year, only a handful of salmon returned to the watershed to lay their eggs. Bouley called it a perfect storm of problems on the creek and in the ocean. But this year, biologists are seeing larger numbers of Coho return. 
“Based on ocean survival rates, we’re expecting two to three hundred fish at minimum, and hopefully more,” she said.
The Lagunitas watershed is one of the last areas in California where Coho spawn.  During the winter months, the banks of the creek are filled with visitors who come to witness this annual ritual. Members of SPAWN guide tours of the life and death action.
“People come out from the Bay Area, even California and visit with us and learn about the fish and see this magnificent spawning run, and hopefully leave feeling inspired,” Bouley said.
With more rain on the way, the fish ladders and creeks will attract even more Coho to the area – to finish out a lifetime ritual, in the place where it all began.
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