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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Disappearing act: Bruce MacFarlane considers the coho at the hatchery on Big Creek, off Swanton Road

Going, Going Gone

Last winter the coho salmon almost disappeared from Santa Cruz County streams. People have been arguing about it ever since.

By Traci Hukill

A group of researchers with the federal government drove up Swanton Road last January, turned onto a dirt lane and parked at a short trailhead leading through heavy brush to Scott Creek. Outfitted with waders and nets, they ventured into the chilly waters to count endangered adult coho salmon.

It should have been a good year for the troubled fish. The adult coho the scientists had counted in that spot three years earlier--the parents of this generation--had numbered 329, a healthy figure for this area nowadays.

Instead, the scientists found a disaster. Only 11 coho returned to spawn in Scott Creek for the season. Just one was female.

Up and down the rest of the coast a similar phenomenon was playing out. In the lush redwood- and fir-shaded waterways of the coastal ranges, where the unusually quick coho dart upstream among rocks and fallen logs in search of a place to lay their eggs, numbers were down. Sonoma's Olema Creek saw an 85 percent drop from three years ago; the Eel River, 70 percent. In Redwood Creek in Marin, no coho returned at all.

On average, streams between Scott Creek and the Oregon border saw a 73 percent decline in spawning coho salmon. In Oregon, where the population is always healthier, returns were down 60 percent.

What's more, these were the descendants of the coho equivalent of the baby boomers. Most years the return is weak, but every three years this lineage returns in healthier numbers. Now it looked just like the other two lineages: in serious trouble. News of the collapse triggered a flurry of scientific reports and meetings. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that the coho was in danger of vanishing. Three Santa Cruz-based scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)--Sean Hayes, Bruce MacFarlane and Brian Wells--issued a paper on the season's poor return in which they blamed "poor ocean conditions," a generic-sounding phrase encompassing everything from aberrant wind patterns to a weak ocean upwelling that hadn't properly jump-started the marine food web. (They applied their findings to Chinook salmon, too, numbers of which dropped so precipitously last fall that the state shut down the fishery entirely.) Other scientists agreed: there just hadn't been enough food in the ocean to sustain juvenile coho during their year and a half at sea, when they normally pack on enough weight to make the long journey back upstream to spawn.

A year or two of bad ocean conditions wouldn't imperil a healthy population. But the coho population isn't healthy, and most scientists blame that on upstream problems. Logging has long been associated with plummeting salmon populations along the West Coast. Clear-cutting and other destructive practices have silted up waterways and stripped away the canopy that keeps streams cool, disrupting the food chain and depriving salmon of the deep, clear pools where they lay their eggs.

In July, responding to the plummeting numbers, the Sierra Club, the Humboldt-based Environmental Protection Information Center and the fishermen's group California Trout sued the state Board of Forestry, demanding it tighten its rules on logging in watersheds where coho are found. The board refused, saying its own process of scientific review was under way and that it would wait until those results were in before changing any regulations.

The review is due any day, and it's not clear what effect it will have. Meanwhile, the finger-pointing continues as the coho salmon hurtles toward the same fate as the California grizzly.

"Regarding coho salmon south of San Francisco," says NMFS biologist Charlotte Ambrose, "the populations are in critical danger of becoming extinct."

Fragile Fish
Bruce MacFarlane has been studying salmon for 25 years, and he still sounds amazed when he talks about their evolutionary adaptations.

"It's a brilliant survival strategy," he says. "They spend most of their lives in the ocean--it's a nutrient-rich environment. There's loads of food. But it's also a predator-rich environment. So where do they go to lay their eggs? To these inland streams, where there aren't as many predators. But there isn't as much food, either, so at some point they have to return to the ocean. By the time they hit the ocean in April, May, June, you've got a bustling farm out there for them."

As MacFarlane says this, he's standing next to a swimming pool-size tank at the NMFS Terrace Point complex where nearly grown coho are flitting among shadows. Some of them will eventually be transported to a hatchery on Big Creek just off Swanton Road where their eggs will be harvested and fertilized.

The Central California coho exist in such low numbers south of San Francisco that without a hatchery program they might not be here at all. Santa Cruz County is at the southernmost end of the coho's historic range, and populations at the edge of their range are never very stable, says MacFarlane. Add to that the fact that the coho are the hothouse flowers of the salmon world, and it all spells trouble. Coho aren't able to tolerate fast-moving water. They require deep, shady pools for spawning. Their strict three-year life cycle means they can't breed with older or younger fish, which makes year lineages vulnerable. Nature did deal them one good card; up to 30 percent of coho migrate to other streams to spawn. Indeed, recently a handful of coho have popped up in Soquel and Aptos creeks--places they've never been documented before. It gives the species a little flexibility.

Jonathan Ambrose, a Santa Rosa-based biologist with the NMFS (and the husband of Charlotte Ambrose), says coho have evolved to be able to survive catastrophes like landslides, wildfires and even a spate of poor ocean condition years. But that only works if their habitat is healthy.

"They're remarkable in the sense that one female can carry 5,000 eggs, and she can re-enter a stream and if the instream conditions are good, she can quickly repopulate it. That's show these fish have evolved," he says."But what we're realizing is, the instream conditions across the range of the Central California coho are in poor shape. Even if the fish make it back from the ocean, if the instream conditions aren't there, the fish can't do what they've evolved to do, and that's quickly recolonize."

Scientists point to a variety of factors in the destruction of coho habitat. The main one, in Jonathan Ambrose's view, is urbanization. As an example, he offers up the San Lorenzo River, which had coho until 1982 (and had a few again in 2005).

"The San Lorenzo comes up as probably the watershed in the overall worst condition," he says. "And why is that? Because you have an incredibly high density of roads. Lots are not properly maintained. Dirt bleeds into the creek. All kinds of people are living on the river because, what a beautiful place.

"But what happens is, this fish needs to have complex instream habitat, and in Santa Cruz County that's primarily formed by trees falling into the creek, creating deep pools. But in Santa Cruz, the county funds the removal of large woody debris in the stream--and no other county does this--and if you don't have large woody debris in the water, you won't have fish."

Drought and water diversion wreak havoc, too, says MacFarlane, and it could worsen. "If climate change has an adverse impact on the hydrological cycle here, what's going to happen to the fish?"

Logging Jam
Then there's the erosion and other problems associated with logging. Much of the coho salmon's habitat lies in timberlands, and the NMFS has come out and charged that the California Board of Forestry's policies have contributed to coho decline--which is why the Sierra Club and other litigants sued the Board of Forestry this past summer.

The board actually has new rules to protect the coho. With buy-in from the Department of Fish and Game, it revamped its policy on the coho in July 2007. The new rules govern such arcana as what percentage of conifer canopy must be left in place on tributaries to coho-bearing streams when the slope is greater than 55 percent, and how many feet before a culvert a road must be laid with rock to slow erosion. To the layperson they're an excellent cure for insomnia. To interested parties, they're cause for heartburn.

Sierra Club deputy director Paul Mason says the devastating 2008 coho return proves that the board's new rules don't work. The main problem is that those rules--tougher than the previous policies but not as restrictive as many environmentalists would have liked--only kick in when a Fish and Game official determines that a given logging plan would harm coho. The Sierra Club and its fellow litigants want to remove the trigger and have the rules enacted at all times.

"Basically they only want to apply these protections if Fish and Game can prove that salmon are going to die before a logging operation," Mason says. "And we think they should apply before you're actually killing the last salmon."

As for the scientific literature review being undertaken by the board, Mason is dismissive. "They won't make any changes based on that review for well over a year, minimum. Those rule changes would go into effect at the earliest in 2010.

"And that has been the counterargument: we're doing this literature review; let's let the process run its course. Our response to that is: the salmon are in freaking crisis. There's no reason we can't adopt more protective measures while finishing the review."

Mason finds an irony in the fact that the NMFS--an agency in the Bush government, after all--has sided with the Sierra Club on the matter of the inadequacy of the state board's rules.

"This is perhaps the only situation I can think of where the Bush administration is taking a more protective stance than the Schwarzenegger administration," he says. "It's kinda crazy that way."

And who prevails when the federal government tells a state agency to clean up its act? No telling. Several years ago the NMFS sued the Board of Forestry, saying its rules contribute to the "take" of salmon. The state fought it in court and it was thrown out on a technicality.

"Essentially, the board said, 'Kiss off,'" says Mason.

Burden of Stewardship
Bud McCrary could be a posterboy for the benefits of fresh air and teetotalling. At 81 he's mentally sharp and confoundingly light on his feet. The only concession he makes to advanced age is to seize a walking stick from the back of his truck before he goes stumping off into the undergrowth to make a point. And McCrary, co-owner with his brother Lud of Big Creek Lumber, has many points to make.

Big Creek is widely recognized as a leader in sustainable logging practices. McCrary explains that even though much of the land in the Santa Cruz Mountains was clear-cut long ago, Big Creek strives to create a "simulated old-growth forest"--one with a lower density of larger trees rather than many small trees all competing with each other as happens in the decades following a clear-cut. To achieve this, Big Creek practices "selective harvesting" and lets trees mature to 50 to 60 years, rather than the 30 to 40 years that is the standard for many logging operations in California and the Northwest. The result, McCrary says, isn't just better for the forest. It's better for business.

"When people [from logging companies] up north look at our trees, they say, 'Wow, those are good-size trees.'"

Another point McCrary likes to make is that the logging regulations are getting too restrictive. "We've managed to make it work up to this point, but the rules are getting so tight it's getting almost impossible to operate."

Asked to comment on the difficulty of complying with a rule from the new set--one stipulating that 85 percent of canopy be left in place up to 50 feet from one type of waterway--McCrary is inspired to host a field trip. Off Swanton Road, beyond a private gate and past the homes of McCrary's extended family lies an area last harvested in 2003. It's peaceful, shady and fragrant; a stone's throw away, Scott Creek, low this time of year, makes its way seaward. McCrary points out branches and other slash on the ground, distributed by Big Creek after the harvest in a voluntary effort to prevent erosion. He also points out a tree of perhaps three feet in diameter that remains standing.

"Down here in the bottom there's plenty of water and good nutrient-rich soil," McCrary says. Then he points at a nearby slope, fairly steep, populated by spindly trees. "They were always smaller," he says. "There are good minerals in the mudstone, but the trees don't get as much out of it, and they don't have as much water." The upshot: the best trees are near the water, and the rules make harvesting them very hard.

McCrary harps on one last point. Citing newspaper articles announcing the opening of the Brookdale hatchery in 1907 and the import of coho eggs, he claims that coho aren't even native to the area south of San Francisco. The Central Coast Foresters Association is suing NMFS over the listing of the coho salmon based on this research. It's an argument to which Jonathan Ambrose gives short shrift. "The archaeological record is definitive: there were coho here," he says.

In any case, for now the coho are listed, and Big Creek is dealing with new rules just like all the other timber companies in California. That includes the bad actors at whom some of these rules seem to be aimed.

For example, Big Creek forester Nadia Hamey explains that the rule prohibiting harvest of any trees within a given buffer zone on "Class II" streams, which may only have water three months of the year, seems geared to provide last-ditch protection for areas under threat of clear-cut. "I've said to the Board of Forestry many times that with single-tree selection you have intact forest throughout the stand," Hamey says. "So making that zone a no-go area is harsh. It doesn't fit our type of light touch selective harvesting."

Hamey, who attends Board of Forestry meetings regularly to advocate for tailored rather than one-size-fits-all regulations, estimates that the conditions proposed by the Sierra Club would result in the loss of $826 per acre in timber value, plus cost an additional $400 per acre in mitigations. That's a quarter of a million dollars on a 200-acre plan. She's frustrated.

"I came to work here because of the really proactive resource-protective way we manage our forests down here," she says. "We only remove 30 percent of trees normally. To the untrained eye you often can't even tell we've been here logging. So I thought that we should have a rule set tailored to that, and instead we have a rule set that is really aimed at the bad perpetrators in California."

More nuanced rules may come into play when the board's scientific review is complete. Mike Liquori, one of the principals of Sound Watershed Consulting, is heading up the process. It involves boiling 4,000 pages of research down into a report on riparian zones in coho watersheds, and then incorporating the comments of a dozen scientists. He says the one-size-fits-all approach is dated.

"We've learned a lot about how forestry affects fish in the last 15 to 20 years," he says. "One thing we're learning is there may be some benefits, not only to fish but to the food that feeds the fish, from different kinds of sunlight. Shade from conifer forest seems to be different from shade that comes from hardwood forest. And leaves that fall from those trees have different nutrient levels. Some hardwood species provide much better food quality to the aquatic environment, but the quality of wood isn't very good at creating fish habitat.

"There are all these kinds of tradeoffs that have to be considered. And the historical approach is, 'It's too complicated for us to deal with. We'll just draw a big buffer around the stream and let nature sort it out.'"

Paul Mason of the Sierra Club says there's a good reason for that: it is too complicated to deal with.

"The logging sector and their advocates will say over and over, 'It can't be one size fits all, it needs to be more flexible.' But that creates a lot of uncertainty about what's expected--especially when it takes three months to get an appointment with Fish and Game."

He adds that he fears the scientific review process headed up by Liquori buttresses a piecemeal approach to conservation.

"What they've done is they've taken the whole question of what do salmon need to survive and chopped it up in little pieces and answered it individually," he says. "For example, they're focusing primarily on riparian areas. Not how fast are you logging the watershed or other things happening upslope."

And then, unable to resist the obvious figure of speech, he adds, "I'm afraid they're going to take the whole forest and only look at individual trees."

Got Hope?
One may wonder what the point is of trying to preserve a population that seems so far past help, as the coho south of San Francisco Bay seem to be. Why not focus on healthier populations, like those in Northern California and Oregon? Aside from the ethical considerations, there are science-based arguments.

For one thing, says Bruce MacFarlane, the adult salmon that die in the streams after spawning are an integral part of the forest ecosystem. "Salmon carcasses get the food chain going in these streams, which are nutrient-poor," he says. "It's fertilizer for the whole chain. In streams where there are a lot of salmon, you can actually find their isotopes in the trees--you can tell marine-derived nutrients from terrestrially derived nutrients."

Another reason involves the coho's long-term health as a species. "Species at the edge of their range--it's kind of a center of evolutionary innovation," says Jonathan Ambrose. "This is where fish evolve and adapt to changing environments over time. If you take away that area and say, 'We'll only protect them in Lagunitas Creek in Mendocino County,' you're not doing what we have to under the Endangered Species Act, and that's protect the ecosystems of these species."

And in fact there is hope for the coho. Even though this winter may be a repeat of last, ocean conditions were excellent this year, so the winter of 2010 could very well see a rebounded coho population.

Meanwhile, a project taking place on San Vicente Creek just south of Davenport stands as an example of how coho can adapt to man-made features. Kit Crump, a NMFS biologist who works on habitat restoration for steelhead and coho, says that 20 or 30 years ago a farmer near the creek dug a pond and diverted water into it--an infraction that wound up actually benefiting young coho, which like to fatten up in nutrient-rich wetlands before making the final push out to sea.

"When we first approached this site it was a 'take' case," Crump says, using the legal term for "harm." "It's now a key habitat feature."

With help and funding from the Resource Conservation District's Integrated Watershed Restoration Program, Crump is working to ensure the makeshift wetlands gets a steady supply of water. The project will be showcased during a big salmonid restoration conference coming to Santa Cruz next March.

Jonathan Ambrose says the best help for the coho will come in the form of individual effort and stewardship. To this end, he praises the Santa Cruz Resource Conservation District, which does outreach to landowners to help them with restoration projects that prevent erosion. "They're outstanding," he says. "Those kinds of partnerships are really important.

"We can do it, but a lot of these things aren't sexy, so to speak," he says. "It's not about building a hatchery or a fish ladder. People love that, because it's a quick fix and relatively simple. I don't think I've ever met the landowner who says, 'No, I don't want a ladder,' because everyone wants to help in their way.

"But when you say, 'You need a bigger buffer, you need to take care of this road that's been bleeding,' that's different. And it takes years and years."

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