There was a chance that it was already too late for coho salmon in the Russian River.
Fish biologist Mariska Obedzinski had been working in Maine, helping to recover endangered Atlantic salmon. Now, as a newly-hired California Sea Grant researcher, she was turning her attention to Russian River coho — a fish that lay a mere whisker away from extinction itself.
It was the fall of 2004, and Obedzinski arrived in the foothills of Sonoma County just in time to see the first batch of juvenile coho salmon released from the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery into tributaries of the Russian River.
Hopes ran high that day, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the odds were not exactly in favor of the fish. In the early 2000s, fewer than 10 adults were known to return to the river each year— a very likely last gasp at survival.
The once-mighty Russian River was facing tremendous habitat loss and degradation. Coho salmon runs that had numbered an estimated 15,000 a year in the early 1950s could no longer be sustained. Over 200 years of human population growth and habitat loss, alongside a recent uptick in flooding and drought events ushered in by climate change, meant a rough go for the region’s once-prized salmon.
“It’s the typical ‘death by a thousand cuts’ salmon story,” says Obedzinski. She hoped she could make a difference.
A Race For Survival
Salmon are a strong indicator of the condition of their watershed. They enter the ocean as small fish, grow large and bring resources from the marine environment back upstream when they spawn. When the fish die, those marine nutrients are then carried through the watershed and out into nearby riverbanks and forests. That makes them vital to the wellbeing of the greater ecosystem. As the Russian River’s coho salmon population declined, it was a signal that the overall health of the river was also in trouble.
Coho are a sensitive species and can be difficult to raise in a hatchery setting. Warm Springs was designed from the get-go as a conservation hatchery. The goal here was not to make up for lost production or to support a commercial fishery, as is the case with many salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. Instead it was designed to help rebuild a long-term sustainable run of wild coho salmon within the Russian River.
“We really got in in the nick of time to start the program,” says Benjamin White, supervisory natural resource management specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Historically, coho were found in 32 different streams of the Russian River. But by 2004, we were down to the last few remaining wild juveniles. We didn’t have the facility or infrastructure in place yet, but we knew we didn’t want the fish to blink out.”
There simply was no time to waste.
It took a partnership between three agencies — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to get the facility up and running. A team of experts, which included Sonoma Water’s David Manning and CDFW’s Bob Coey, got to work creating a plan that would help ensure coho conservation goals were met.
In the meantime, extension advisors Paul Olin and David Lewis knew that monitoring the future hatchery’s success rate would be key. The pair quickly applied for a grant to launch the Russian River Coho Captive Broodstock Monitoring Program and brought Obedzinski onboard to lead it.
But the coho facility would take several years to build. With no time to spare, the team needed to use any existing infrastructure they could access. Initially, that meant six starter tanks and three larger circular tanks set in an open field without a building.
The first 6,000 hatchery-raised coho, bred from those last remaining captured wild fish, were released into three different streams within the 1,485 square miles of the Russian River watershed. As the program matured and had more fish to release, the team began hedging their bets by releasing fish at different times and at different ages as a way to boost success rates. Some fish were three months old when released, others were as much as a year old.
“We don’t know exactly where survival will be best in a given year, so releasing at different ages is a way to not put all of our eggs in one basket,” says Obedzinski.
Obedzinski and her team first focused on devising a method to track population trends over time as additional hatchery fish were released into the watershed’s streams each year. Then they turned their attention outward in an effort to understand why coho salmon populations were dwindling in the first place.
“Over the years, the program grew from trying to figure out if the hatchery fish were surviving in the wild, to identifying where the population bottlenecks are and relaying that information to organizations working on habitat restoration,” says Obedzinski.
By making their data accessible to partners working on salmon recovery and training young scientists through various education programs, Sea Grant was able to expand its support in a broader, and perhaps more impactful way.
Eliminating the Bottlenecks in a Changing River
When retired landowner Lynn Garric first moved to her property along Mark West Creek in 1983, she recalls crossing a small bridge to collect her daily mail while seeing large fish swimming in the stream below. Over the years, the fish sightings began to dwindle. Then, in October 2017, her property was badly damaged in the Tubbs wildfire which swept through more than 36,000 acres of forest. The streambanks she had come to know so well had drastically changed in an instant.
“After the fires, there was a lot of debris in the river, and much of the canopy over the creek was lost in the fire. It went from a shady cool stream to one clogged with debris and too much sunlight,” says Garric. “There was a lot of concern over whether or not the fish would survive. Would they even be able to come back?”
While habitat enhancement projects can be expensive and slow-going, California Sea Grant’s research showed that remediating issues such as low streamflow are critical to the health of the watershed. The ability to increase streamflow and restore habitat can dictate the fate of the region’s imperiled coho salmon (and steelhead, whose numbers continue to be troubling).
Recognizing the importance of stream and tributary flows and their role in limiting salmon populations was something that hadn’t generated much attention before now, says Ted Grantham, professor of cooperative extension, University of California, Berkeley.
“I think the work Mariska and her team has done has been important and influential, and has inspired a lot of conservation strategies that we see now in this part of the world,” says Grantham. Those conservation strategies included programs that focused on reducing overall Russian River water usage, including encouraging landowners to reduce their water usage; incentivizing storage of winter water; streamflow augmentation and more.
Obedzinski understood strong regional partnerships were going to be needed to give the coho a fighting chance. She actively sought to collaborate with not just governmental agencies but also conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and researchers at UC Berkeley. Landowners like Garric were essential, too. It was clear that gaining the support of the broader watershed community would be integral to the salmon’s ultimate persistence.
“We were aware of the Coho Broodstock Program and California Sea Grant’s monitoring work on the Russian River,” says Mary Ann King, director of Trout Unlimited’s California Water Project. “And after comparing notes, we began a more robust partnership with them and other organizations, focused on improving stream flow in key tributaries of the Russian River, aided by substantial funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Sonoma Water.”
“Sea Grant does some things incredibly well, and one of the things they’re very good at is translating enormous amounts of data and information into useful information,” she adds.
While it might be too early to call the salmon’s trajectory a bonafied turnaround, notable progress has been made since the program’s early beginnings. In total, more than 2.4 million coho salmon have been released from the Warm Springs Hatchery. Researchers now use innovative PIT technology, similar to the microchips used to track pets, to monitor the thousands of hatchery fish released into the tributaries each year. Today, coho salmon are confirmed present in up to 33 Russian River streams, and snorkel counts in 2022 recorded more than 50,000 naturally spawned coho-young in the lower Russian River streams.
“Had this intervention not taken place, I don’t think there would be coho salmon in the Russian River anymore,” says Sea Grant advisor Paul Olin, who’s efforts first launched the program.
“Even if I can’t see it, I know things are improving,” she says. “The science gives people hope. Without the data, it’s easy for people to get discouraged and think the fish are gone.”
Hope for the Future
After nearly two decades of work, Sea Grant announced in the spring of 2023 that it’s Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program would be downsizing. Although Sea Grant will no longer be conducting intensive field work, their partners at Sonoma Water are carrying on the core work of salmon and steelhead field monitoring activities. Trout Unlimited and CDFW will be continuing some of their environmental monitoring and habitat mapping.
“While we still have a long way to go, we are encouraged by signs of hope. Adult coho are returning to the watershed by the hundreds each winter thanks to the conservation hatchery, intensive efforts to improve habitat and restore ecosystem processes, and robust public support,” says Sarah Nossaman-Pierce, a long-time fish biologist for the Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program. “The fact that the salmon still have a fighting chance here at the southern end of their native range is a testament to the tremendous, sustained and coordinated efforts of a broad diversity of people working to achieve positive change for our natural and human communities.”
What’s growing more clear is that California Sea Grant’s decades of work on the Russian River will help boost survival odds for future salmon populations elsewhere.
“Sea Grant contributed a tremendous amount of knowledge of salmon in this system.
The conditions coho are experiencing now in the Russian River are going to resemble those that salmon will experience further north in 20, 30, 50 years from now,” says Grantham. “If we can give this population a chance for survival, it will inform how we give other salmon populations a chance in the future.”
About California Sea Grant
NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.