The federal government is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to save the endgangered coho salmon, but the Sierra Club is concerned that these efforts are ignoring the real source of contamination—and meanwhile, our salmon are inching closer to extinction.
In Marin, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) collected comprehensive scientific research on our two most significant spawning grounds, Lagunitas Creek in the San Geronimo Valley and Redwood Creek, which traverses Muir Woods to reach Muir Beach and the Pacific Ocean (you can find the full text of NOAA’s “Recovery Plan for the Evolutionarily Significant Unit of Central Coast Coho Salmon” online). As part of the habitat restoration effort, 15 million dollars was spent to restore Big Lagoon and Muir Beach. Yet these efforts did not save the latest generation of coho.
Thirteen adult spawners were counted this year but apparently none of the hatched fry from five observed nests survived. Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirm that for the first time in Redwood Creek’s recorded history, the local extinction of this year’s coho has occurred.
Earlier generations, now 18 months and three years old, are in deep trouble too. In August, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service “rescued” the remaining coho in Redwood Creek and Mount Tamalpais State Park. They found no babies, instead transporting the 105 smolt-sized fish that failed to migrate out to sea to the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery in Sonoma. Although some of the smolt found this year may survive to spawn, the trajectory is not looking good. Scientists warn of an “extinction vortex” for coho. A recovery threshold of 272 fish is the minimum indicated for Redwood Creek in the NOAA Fisheries Coho Recovery Plan.
All this begs the question: What happened to the coho young this year?
Though the National Park Service and other agencies have spent over 15 million dollars on habitat restoration, they have failed to test the water in Redwood Creek for contaminants. Every year, an estimated one million visitors and several-hundred thousand vehicles use the road that runs alongside Redwood Creek, leading to Muir Woods. Along a four-mile stretch of that road, 15 of 43 culverts deliver contaminated storm water directly into the creek. Road runoff is a well-documented source of toxins in creeks, and water contamination could be a significant factor in the coho’s plight.
Car brake pads emit copper, a known neurotoxin. Government scientists have concluded that low levels of copper found in waterways harm sense of smell in young coho salmon, reducing their ability to avoid predators and confusing migration and spawning ability. Copper tests cost only 10 dollars.
Moreover, a 2013 study from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Washington linked unidentified compounds in highway runoff to coho salmon death. In that study, toxic chemicals that washed into creeks in the rush of stormwater after a rainfall were found to be killing adult salmon before they could spawn.
According to a regional water board spokesperson, parking alongside Redwood Creek should not be allowed because of the known vehicle contaminants. Yet on any given day a mile-long queue of parked cars lines the county-owned road along the creek. The National Park Service has suggested adding a valet service and online registration system, which would only exacerbate the problem.
Many believe our government and agencies have failed in their responsibility to protect our salmon, favoring visitors over natural resources. This is an occasion for the County of Marin to step forward and do what the federal and state agencies are apparently incapable of doing; the county must follow up on the billions of dollars spent on plans and research and take active steps to save these fish. Marin County owns the roads and must manage them. If we want Muir Woods to continue in harmony with the legacy upon which it was founded, then we need to save its native wildlife from extinction.
The solution: give Muir Woods a break from individual cars. Clean the water and restrict use until we can begin to recover the two remaining coho populations that are on the brink.
Read more about coho salmon in Marin in “Marin Supervisors pass toothless streamside ordinance–will our salmon survive politics?“.