Agriculture, Environment

Coho Salmon and the MALT-Protected Ranches of West Marin

July 31, 2019

MALT was founded by a rancher and a conservationist, united in their shared desire to protect the farmland of West Marin. Nearly forty years after Ellen Straus and Phyllis Faber began this journey, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust continues to honor their commitment to both agriculture and the environment.

A strong example of this commitment is MALT’s ongoing work with ranchers to protect habitat for one of our region’s most endangered species: Central California Coast coho salmon.

Endangered Coho Salmon in Marin

If you’ve ever pulled over along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard near Samuel P. Taylor Park toward the end of the year and peered into Lagunitas Creek, you may have witnessed a flash of red and silver beneath the surface, a sign of coho salmon navigating the storm flows upstream to spawn (mate and lay their eggs in nests).

Classified as endangered by the federal government in 2005, the population of Central California Coast coho salmon has plummeted from historic numbers — largely due to the destruction and loss of their habitat. Every year, about 5,000 native coho spawn along the Central Coast, a 94% decline from estimated numbers from the 1940s. With a population this low, scientists warn that this species is teetering on the brink of extinction.

Central California Coast coho salmon habitat extends from Humboldt to Santa Cruz counties. Here in Marin, the Tomales Bay Watershed — which includes Lagunitas and Walker Creeks — provides important spawning grounds.

The Coho Salmon Project on Walker Creek

MALT, through our land conservation efforts and ongoing Stewardship Assistance Program (SAP), works with ranchers and farmers to improve salmonid habitat and collaborates on strategic conservation efforts.

One example of this is the Coho Broodstock program. Through this program, native salmon are raised in captivity and released into the wild, which helps restore coho populations. MALT stewardship staff participate in this program by coordinating with private landowners to release fish into Walker Creek.

Walker Creek
Walker Creek, coho habitat in West Marin

Walker Creek is a 76-square mile stream system located in northern Marin County that flows directly into the Tomales Bay Watershed.

In the early 1900s, abundant coho salmon returned every year to spawn and mature in Walker Creek. By the 1970s only a handful of coho were left in this watershed and reports indicated that the creek was degraded.

In October of 2013, MALT helped facilitate surveys in Walker Creek. During these surveys, 137 juvenile coho were spotted in its pools — the first time since 2008 that juveniles had been sighted there!

This discovery supported the idea that Walker Creek could provide viable habitat for coho.

Coho salmon survey

In December of 2017, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) was searching for locations in Walker Creek to release coho salmon as part of the Coho Broodstock program.

At that time, MALT had protected close to 80 farms and ranches on approximately 47,000 acres. Because MALT has established, trusting relationships with MALT landowners and an intimate knowledge of the landscape, we were in a position to help secure a location.  

“Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who protects the public interest.”

Aldo LEOPOLD

MALT’s Stewardship staff approached a ranch owner who generously agreed to allow MALT, CDFW, MMWD and the Marin Resource Conservation District (MRCD) to access his property. As a result, we successfully released 100 adult coho salmon into Walker Creek.

We’re proud to have been partners in this effort.

Watch the Video Showcasing our Walker Creek Coho Salmon Release

MALT’s Continuing Role in Protecting Coho Salmon

In addition to helping release of salmon into the wild, many of MALT’s SAP projects improve salmonid habitat and/or water quality which are critical to the long-term recovery of the species.

These projects include:

Thank you!

Thank you to all the MALT supporters that make this work — and so much more — possible. We cannot do it without you.

Together, we can continue to honor our vision of protecting farmland and the environment.