Salmonid Field Trip

Devil's Gulch

Devil’s Gulch

Restoration Ecology’s final field trip of the Fall, 2016 semester was a wonderful adventure in the redwoods, looking at restoration projects aimed at restoring habitat for salmonid fishes, including chinook and coho salmon. Our hosts for the day were Sarah Phillips of the Marin Resource Conservation Department (RCD), Erik Young, a lawyer affiliated with Trout Unlimited, and Eric Ettlinger of the Marin Water District. Each of them shared with us a different perspective on the creek, and how restoration projects happen.

You can read the rest of this story on my personal blog, Teacup Rex:  https://www.teacuprex.com/2016/11/18/salmonid-field-trip/

Salmon Crossing!

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Written by: Gianpaolo Solari & Beverly Wong

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Photo Credits: http://nps.gov

It is widely accepted that California’s native fish (largely our salmon, steelhead, and trout) are experiencing a consistent, momentous decline. Many of these populations are diminishing at a dangerously rapid rate. Of course, there are many factors that drive our gilled friends towards extinction. Climate change and out mismanagement of water are large ones, but human population growth and destruction of habitat are large contributors as well. So what exactly is natural salmon habitat? To understand that, we must first understand the Salmon life cycle. The cycle starts in freshwater, when a female fertilizes her nest of eggs (also called a redd). These eggs will hatch as alevins (tiny fish with the yolk sac still attached to their body). These alevins will slowly grow, and emerge from their redd, and become fry. Fry generally live in their natal stream for about a year, and it is for this reason that they depend on appropriate habitat. These fry need logs, shade, and large rocks to rest and hide in. The fry will eventually migrate towards the ocean, where they will live for one to seven years. Salmon will then head back to their natal stream, where females build their redds, males fertilize these redds, and both the males and females die. With this in our minds, on November 18th we made the trip on a foggy Friday morning to Lagunitas Creek.

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Sarah speaking about her role in salmon restoration at Lagunitas!

We were met by three friendly professional faces — Sarah, Erik, and Eric with a ‘C’. Because much of the salmon habitat have been degraded or completely destroyed, restoration projects that Sarah and her team have started focus on improving current habitat by mimicking conditions in the past when salmon were abundant. For example, a significant project that has been worked on includes implementing woody debris in the creek. Naturally, trees along the bank would occasionally fall over or branches would drop from the canopy and into the streams. These woody structures would catch onto the sides randomly, which creates deep pools, areas to hide from predators, as well as a slowed down velocity so fish do not get washed away down the creek.

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Looks real, huh? Nope, just woody debris structures that have been plopped here in the creek!

It was a real treat to actually see the woody debris structures in place at Lagunitas Creek. Despite the fact that it is artificial, it did seem to fit in with the habitat aesthetically. However, the most important part was that it was improving the life of the salmon population, as well as other organisms that occupy the watershed. In fact, we happened to see a female salmon digging little egg depositories in the Creek as Erik was speaking about the very subject. It was a good feeling knowing that these structures actually were allowing salmon to survive and do other salmon-y things like hiding behind and within substrate when a huge storm hits.

While many individuals think that  restoration mainly focuses on the environmental and scientific aspects, the financial, political, legal, and social aspects of it all are overlooked. This trip in particular gave insight on all of the different but equally as important factors that play a large role in restoration and conservation. For example, Sarah told us her journey through learning about the difficult process of permitting and how she had to speak to the local community about and of the restoration projects that were being planned. Without getting a permit and without speaking with the community about their thoughts and needs, there wouldn’t even be a restoration project!

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Making our way down to check out Lagunitas Creek!

Switching to Eric Young’s role on salmon restoration, he is someone you wouldn’t think would even be involved in a project: a lawyer – more specifically, an environmental lawyer that focuses and handles all of the legal aspects of a restoration project. There are always laws and regulations to follow, especially with heavy alterations to the environment like the woody debris that had been put in place along areas of Lagunitas Creek and Devil’s Gulch. And finally, the most commonly thought of to be a part of restoration is Erik’s role as a biologist that focuses on the statistics and science behind salmon populations in different areas.

With all of Sarah’s, Erik’s, and Eric’s knowledge and abilities in different fields, they come together as a well-rounded team to implement important restoration and other projects of environmental and social importance. Despite their differences in each of their fields, it is actually beneficial to have such different minds and personalities work together and it really showed during our trip.

Coming Together for the Coho Salmon

By Niall Ogburn, Danielle Wegner, and Michael Lutz. (All photos: Lutz)

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The welcoming committee, comprised of Sarah Phillips (right), Eric Ettinger (middle), and Erik Young (left).

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Eric Ettlinger standing in front of Lagunitas Creek

Cruising through the meandering roads of west Marin County, the students of Restoration Ecology at Sonoma State were about to experience salmon restoration efforts performed in the real world. Pulling into the parking lot of the Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area, we were greeted by an eclectic salmon welcoming committee. The group comprised of SSU alumna Sarah Phillips of the Marin Resource Conservation Department (RCD), Erik Young of Trout Unlimited, and Eric Ettlinger of Marin Water District. Each of these individuals provides a distinct viewpoint fromtheir different areas of expertise towards one common purpose: restoring the Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) population of west Marin.  This provides a perfect example of a critical concept learned in the classroom: understanding how to build bridges across various agencies and stakeholder viewpoints to get everyone on board with a restoration project.

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Large woody debris visible from the Leo T. Cronin fish viewing area

In the shaded parking lot of Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area, our first of three stops, we received background information on the history of salmon restoration in Marin county along with a perspective of different agency roles within the restoration process. Sarah kicked things off by providing background information on the anadromous lifestyle and the ocean-to-freshwater stream journey these fish traverse in order to spawn. We also went over the importance habitat health of streams and riparian habits have in order to protect the salmon eggs, and salmon babies, officially known as fry, as they grow into adults and make their way back to the ocean.

Sarah also explained the unique role she plays as Urban Stream Coordinator,  finding ways to connect the local community to the restoration project, opening up resources along with developing ways to promote sustainable living to protect salmon streams from degradation.

After explaining her role at the RCD, Eric Ettlinger of Marin Water District stepped in and explained the importance of woody debris and his task in monitoring abundance of Coho salmon along with creating woody debris restoration sites. We learned that past efforts to clear streams of woody debris are exactly the opposite of what is needed for the stream! Eric explained how he has to develop projects that will reinstate loss woody debris piles that are needed in the upper stream and creating slow moving wider rivers downstream.

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Erik Young and Sarah Philips giving a game plan after for next stop

Next, we heard from Erik Young, a retired lawyer and professor who now works with Trout Unlimited. Erik shared with us some stories about the entanglement of litigation that comes with creating and implementing a restoration project that involves an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

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Splashing of water from a female chinook salmon digging out a redd

With all of this information on the complexities of salmon conservation efforts, it was time to move on to the second stop. Hopes were running high for the opportunity to see this infamous fish.

At Lagunitas Creek, Eric Ettlinger explained the process female salmon use to create their nests. He was mid sentence when we heard a large splash in the water behind him. What could it be?! It was a female salmon creating the very thing that Eric was just talking about! A Chinook salmon was in the process of creating what is known as a redd: the female digs out a small pocket in the stream bed by flopping around and using her tail to create a safe spot where she can lay her eggs.

After the excitement of seeing this endangered salmon, we headed back up to the vans and drove to our third and final spot, Devil’s Gulch. 

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Students gathered around the area in Devils Gulch where we ate lunch

Upon reaching our final stop, we decided it would be a good time to stop and have lunch, so the whole class sat down on the ground and enjoyed the warm of the sunshine on a brisk day while listening to Sarah talk about her days at Sonoma State where she once took some of the classes that we are in now!

After we all finished lunch, we headed out of the sun and into the shade of the creek canopy, as we went down to Devil’s Gulch to view several woody debris restoration projects that had been completed by Sarah and the rest of the team. Along the way, we tried to avoid the poison oak that was abundant along the path. We learned how the woody debris was brought down to the creek using machinery that would cause minimal damage to the surrounding areas of the creek. At our last spot on the creek, set beside patches of stinging nettle that give Devil’s Gulch its name, Sarah shared with us some of the struggles involved with getting permits and working with local government and community members in order to make these types of projects happen. She explained to us that it was a difficult area of her job that took a lot of effort, and stressed a need for the will to never stop trying to achieve your goal, even if your project proposals are rejected the first couple of times.

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One example of the large woody debris installed at the Devil’s Gulch Restoration site with a large subsequent pool visible

It was extremely interesting to learn about the projects that were done in the Lagunitas Creek and how many benefits the woody debris has for the restoration of the salmon. It was also an absolute pleasure to have three very different backgrounds in the form of Eric, Sarah, and Erik to bring together the vast amount of knowledge they had on the subject and inform us of the importance of their work that they have been doing. They really showed us that even though you may come from different fields of work and focus on different aspects of a project, it is extremely valuable to have different minds come together to unite and complete a common goal for the betterment of the environment and the species that live in it.