Written by: Gianpaolo Solari & Beverly Wong
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.
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.
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!
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.