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Posted 1/20/2012

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By JC Delgadillo
San Francisco District


SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. -- They race along the twisting road above the narrow sandy beaches and rocky Sonoma coastline, bound to live free or die. For three years their guardians have carefully tended to their every need, but now the time has come for these coho to be returned to the wild to thrive, at least that's the hope.

Three trucks with tanks carrying 175 adult coho salmon approach Chanslor Ranch. A portion of Salmon Creek located near the ranch was determined to be the best place to release the fish. At the bottom of a narrow, steep dirt road lays the release point where dozens of local residents including families with children eagerly wait to assist with the release. Had it not been for a coalition of government agencies, scientists, private landowners and citizens dedicated to coho salmon conservation, this event might never happen.

For generations, coho salmon prospered in the Russian River which winds its way through California's wine country en route to the Pacific Ocean. Dramatic declines in the coho salmon population due to both natural and human-induced factors resulted in NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service declaring the species endangered in the 1990s. A variety of conservation efforts including captive-rearing in hatcheries, modifying of flood-control structures that obstruct salmon migration and restoring of degraded habitat have resulted in a promising milestone.

In the winter of 2011, biologists funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers counted a record number of wild juvenile coho salmon in the downstream portions of the Russian River system in western Sonoma County. Adult coho also appear to be reproducing in some of their historical tributaries for the first time since large-scale monitoring of the species began in 2005. This is promising news to those enthusiastic about recovery efforts, including the men and women who dedicate their life's work to conservation in the local region.

"A dozen years ago nobody quite knew what to do," said California Department of Fish and Game's Brett Wilson about the declining numbers of the species. "So I headed on a road trip to Oregon and Washington, to Manchester Research Station in Puget Sound, to startups everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. I came back with some really good ideas."

"We were going to need intense collaboration with key agencies, the best science and bucket loads of common sense," said Wilson, now a senior hatchery supervisor at Lake Sonoma.

Collaboration would be found with several groups including NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, experts at the University of California Cooperative Extension and The Sonoma County Water Agency. The water agency had also investigated recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest at the same time as the California Department of Fish and Game had.

Dave Manning, now a senior environmental specialist at The Sonoma County Water Agency, was a young staffer in the early days of recovery efforts.

"We laid a lot of the groundwork for our partners to expand on," said Manning.

Along with personnel from the UC Cooperative Extension, Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District and others, The Sonoma County Water Agency currently provides monitoring of the fish throughout the watershed. The agency also provides funding and personnel and has been instrumental in the restoration of habitat including areas in Dry Creek.

While Wilson was proven correct in his assessment that recovery would require intense collaborations, the best science and bucket loads of common sense, he was well aware recovery would also require funding. California was undergoing intense budget constraints and the California Department of Fish and Game looked to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for support.

The Corps did not let them down, said Wilson.

"There is absolutely no way we could have had such tremendous recovery without the Corps of Engineers believing this was the right thing to do," said Wilson.

The Corps maintains the captive broodstock program at the state-of-the-art Don Clausen Hatchery at Lake Sonoma where coho salmon are reared. Its personnel, including Supervisory Fisheries Biologist Ben White, have made it their mission to nurture coho back from the brink of extinction with the hope of removing the species from endangered classification all together.

"It's quite the group we have working together," said White of the coalition to restore coho salmon. "You've got the best scientific knowledge in the region and people with a deep passion for coho recovery. You've got leaders among their peers working this issue, and I'm proud to be a part of it. You wouldn't be in this field if you didn't care about these fish, and everybody involved wants to see them recover."

At the banks of Salmon Creek atop a truck, White uses nets with long-handles attached to remove the fish from a tank and hands the nets to eager biologists as well as local residents. They race down the bank with the nets to the creek and deposit the fish into the water. Some fish take to the water quickly; others seem a bit lost and try to swim back to land, but with a gentle nudge they return to the creek and begin exploring their new environment.

The water agency, UC Cooperative Extension, Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District and other groups will monitor the fish over the next months. Data obtained will reveal untold amounts of information about the fish.

"The hatchery has done a phenomenal job breeding these fish," said Manning. "The challenge now for everyone who cares about these fish is improving habitat, making sure the right habitat exists for these coho salmon to take hold and become self-sustaining. The hatchery is the seed, but improved habitat is really where the population is going to grow."