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Swimming with History - California's Central Coast Coho Salmon

Adult Central California Coast Coho salmon in Scott Creek, Santa Cruz County, CA, photographed by Morgan Bond, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center

The creeks and streams winding through the coastal mountains and redwood forests of California's Central Coast (CCC) once supported hundreds of thousands of wild coho salmon. From Mendocino County south to Santa Cruz, coastal streams swarmed with Central Coast coho salmon—so many that pitchforks were sometimes used to pluck them from the water.

These salmon were a mainstay of food for Native Americans and early Catholic Missionaries such as Father Junipero Serra, who diverted a stream in Carmel to build a lagoon full of salmon and steelhead in the late 18th century.

As the Mission era drew to a close in the 1830s, ownership of land shifted from the Catholic Church to private individuals. Land grants of thousands of acres of mature forests and ample water supplies attracted large number of settlers to provide the lumber needed by the burgeoning population in San Francisco, even before the Gold Rush.

Importance of Water Quality and Habitat

Sawmills began sprouting up along coastal streams, blocking access to spawning grounds and dumping into the water copious amounts of sawdust and other materials toxic to salmon. Forests became moonscapes, resulting in erosion and landslides, further degrading the streams with excessive silt. As human populations grew in the area, so did the degradation of salmon habitat from gravel mining, overfishing, and competing interests for water.

Central California Coast (CCC) coho salmon were listed as threatened under the ESA in 1996 and then, due to their dire status, relisted to endangered in 2005. By the winter of 2006-2007, scientific research showed the coho population declined 99 percent from 1930s levels in just 70 years—one human lifetime. In 2009, only 500 adult CCC coho salmon were estimated range-wide and were described as one of the most endangered salmon on the West Coast.

In a far-reaching effort to prevent extinction of CCC coho salmon, NMFS is working cooperatively with state and federal agencies, scientists, non-profit organizations, restoration communities, private entities, and many others. Accomplishments include

Some of the key recovery partners include water agencies, timber companies, county Resource Conservation Districts, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, University of California Cooperative Extension/Sea Grant, The Nature Conservancy, State of California, and many others. In 2012, the California State Legislature passed a Coho HELP Act to streamline restoration work.

Help from Hatcheries

Stream restoration and monitoring are often the focus of recovery work, but California's CCC coho salmon restoration program also includes two conservation hatchery captive broodstock programs that have been pivotal in preventing extinction:

At these hatcheries, wild coho are captured by biologists, raised to adulthood, and spawned using a genetic matrix to maximize diversity and prevent inbreeding. In the hatchery, eggs are incubated and the young are raised to various ages, tagged, and then released into streams, to which they will return 3 years later as adults to spawn and die.

More information on the Southwest Fisheries Science Center research program is available on their website.

Rebuilding a Legacy

Cutting-edge practices of both programs have resulted in significant increases over time in the number of young released into the wild. The Russian River program prevented coho salmon extirpation in the watershed with a continued rise in returning adults since the program started in 2001. In 2012-2013, approximately 500 adult CCC coho salmon returned to tributaries of the Russian River to spawn—the largest number of adults witnessed in decades. For the MBSTP, NOAA's Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and the State of California Fisheries Restoration Grant Program have provided significant financial support to safeguard its continued operation. Between 2009 and 2011, the MBSTP realized a 500% increase in egg and young coho survival. 

Many of California's coastal communities are embracing the Recovery Plan and breaking down barriers to focus restoration, rebuild populations, and invest in a fresh push to preserve the legacy of coho salmon along California's central coast.

Leveraging Funds & Stimulating Local Economies

NMFS has awarded states and tribes an average of $79 million annually since the inception of the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCSRF). The program has also leveraged over $860 million in total matching state and other funds. These investments have significant impacts on local economies and support local job development. Recent analyses suggest that up to 17 new "green" jobs and $1.86 million in additional economic activity result for each $1 million investment of PCSRF and state-matching funds (Edwards et al. 2012; Nielsen-Pincus and Moseley 2010).

Every dollar invested in salmon restoration travels through the economy in several ways—restoration project managers hire consultants, contractors, and employees to design, implement, and maintain projects; consultants and contractors hire field crews, rent or purchase equipment, and buy goods and services; and employees spend wages on goods and services to support their livelihoods in their own community (Nielsen-Pincus and Moseley 2009).

Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund at Work!

In 2010, for example, funding provided by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and others contributed to an extensive wetland restoration effort by the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership. Historic logging and farming practices, infrastructure development, and the introduction of non-native plants contributed to degraded habitat quality and quantity. The 58-acre Miami Wetlands Enhancement Project enhances tidal/freshwater wetlands along the Miami River to support outmigrating salmon, including the largest remaining chum population on the Oregon Coast.

Natural hydrology now is restored throughout the Miami wetlands. This was accomplished by filling 2,600 feet of linear ditch and stream channels to raise groundwater levels and provide a source of flow to adjacent waterways. The resulting 4,500 feet of new sinuous stream and tidal channels increases the quantity of salmon rearing habitat in the project area by 56 percent. Additionally, the existing linear stream channel was relocated out of the Highway 101 right-of-way and a longer sinuous channel was created within the wetland. Nearly 200 pieces of large wood placed within the stream channel and floodplain provide low velocity refuge areas for salmon during flooding and provide a rich food source for fish.

In addition to the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership, over 25 partners and landowners came together to make this project a success. The project contributed $1.7 million to the local economy and supported 30 full-time family wage jobs. The project's long-term benefits will continue to take hold through ongoing public education and monitoring opportunities.

Updated: November 22, 2013