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Sonoma County Gazette
Coho Salmon Juvenile

Blessed Be the Rains

Nov 24, 2017
by Tim McKusick


Rain! Precious rain! A blessing that fills our creeks & rivers and recharges the over-spent aquifers. The showers we have recently experienced are an indicator that our winter storm cycles are upon us, and that we can finally breathe a sigh of relief as our fire-fears are extinguished.

The downside is the very real threat of potential landslides and polluted run-off in our burned-over areas as heavier rains are forecast. They are even warning of some flash-flooding in some of our devastated burn-zones! Workers are scrambling to install containment and filtering barriers to deal with the hazardous run-off. To make things even more dangerous, sink-holes are developing in areas where under-road culverts melted during the fire storm. The County and City are in the process of addressing these issues and hope to have a handle on it before too much more damage is incurred.

The coastal hills are showing a hint of green! A welcome and reassuring change after months of dry, brown grasses. Whew! The worst fire danger has passed, but we still have the potential for more, with the abundance of drought-stressed, beetle-infested pines and firs covering the coast. Add to that the Tan Bark Oaks turning brown seemingly overnight, as the Sudden Death Oak Syndrome rears its ugly head, and we realize that we have our work cut out for ourselves preparing for next fire season.

These fall showers were a God-send as they provided enough instream flow to allow Coho Salmon fingerlings to be released as part of the ongoing re-stocking programs. Mike Keller, whose family owns the property at the confluence of Sheephouse Creek and the Russian River Estuary, reports that approximately 3,000 juvenile Coho (advance fingerlings) were released into Sheephouse Creek on November 9, as part of the US Army Corp of Engineers Broodstock Program, as reported to him by Benjamin White of the USACE.

The Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program is working to supplement the wild Russian River Coho population in the hope of restoring it to a sustainable size. Since 2001, a collaborative partnership including the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Sonoma County Water Agency, and the University of California Cooperative Extension/California Sea Grant Extension Program, have been breeding Coho Salmon from local genetic stock at the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery at Lake Sonoma and releasing them as juveniles into historic Coho streams in the Russian River watershed. 

The Sheephouse Creek watershed, which begins in the Jenner Headlands Preserve and flows down to the Russian River Estuary through lands privately held, has been the recipient of various improvements over the past few years in efforts to re-create a habitat inviting enough to once again support a ‘native’ fish population.

Sonoma RCD (Sonoma Resource Conservation District, is following up in the near future on work they have funded in the Sheephouse Creek watershed. The RCD works in partnership with landowners, resource agencies and local contractors to develop and implement riparian and instream enhancement projects on rural and agricultural lands. These projects have multi-benefits both for landowners and for salmonids and other aquatic species that utilize the stream habitat. Riparian enhancement projects are often focused on expanding the riparian corridor, removing invasive species and improving species diversity. These projects are done with the goal of increasing bank stability, protecting against flooding and climate change, improving stormwater management, preventing erosion, improving water quality and water temperature.

Miles of old logging roads have been retired and ancient road culverts repaired and replaced in efforts to reduce sediment from reaching this vital Coho-rearing stream. Banks have been stabilized and logs & boulders placed in critical in-stream locations to create shade and pools that are so critical in the survival of the young fish and the migrating adults. 

All of this work in the endangered species’ habitat is being done with the hope that it is not too late to save some remnant of what was once a thriving native species population. Even with all of man’s best intentions and attempts to ‘play God’, it is increasingly evident that we are not. Hatcheries are finding that they cannot produce fish with the needed resiliency and diversity to thrive in the wild. They are busy cross-breeding with Coho from other Northern CA coastal streams trying to find one that has the best chance of surviving.

With native stream habitat destroyed and erased by man’s ignorance during the logging and development years, these attempts to recreate it are well intended but still fall short of what is truly needed. We need to STOP taking for granted what little healthy habitat we have left. We absolutely need to stop the insane proposals to keep logging our floodplains and hills around the streams and rivers.

And we should absolutely NOT use the recent fires and need to rebuild as an excuse to over-cut and plunder what little is left.

A letter from Benjamin White:

The release near Mike's property was 3,000 juvenile coho into Sheephouse Creek which flows into the estuary in the lower Russian River watershed. The release was part of our annual Fall Release in which we are releasing approx. 85,000 fish into 15 Russian River tributaries. After this week, we will have completed almost 2/3 of the Fall Release, and we should wrap the release season up during the first week of December (we started during the first week of November, so we've been releasing fish a few days a week over the past month).

With the recent rain events, the stream conditions are looking optimal for survival in terms of flow and temperature. Some of these fish might get flushed out of their release stream eventually finding another stream to call home, but most of the fish will hunker down for the winter months and out-migrate next spring as one-year old smolts. And if all goes well, they will return to the RR watershed, and possibly even their original release stream, as 3-year old spawning adults.

Once we complete our Fall Release we will transition right into our spawning season, in which we will mate approximately 200 pairs of endangered Central California Coast coho salmon. The fish will be mated according to genetics breeding matrix to maximize genetic diversity and the offspring produced will be used for re-introduction efforts into the RR watershed next year.


Benjamin White
Fisheries Biologist - Lake Sonoma
US Army Corps of Engineers
3333 Skaggs Springs Rd
Geyserville, CA 95441
(707) 431-4520


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