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A Thing for the Salmon; their Now-or Never Point

This will be my last post from California as I’m heading back shortly for my home in the Rockies.  Its’ been a great month with highly unusual weather–every day is cloudless, gorgeous and in the 60’s–a foreboding omen.  Northern California used to begin its’ serious rains around Thanksgiving.  Over the last 10 or 15 years, that timetable has moved up, with January and February being the rainy months.  Now, it seems even that is no longer predictable.

All that is important for many reasons, but particularly for this post.  This post is all about salmon restoration and the $11 million project going on here at Muir Beach.

Restored, widened lagoon leading to beach. This is the old picnic area

Years ago, I used to guide school children here.  We began at Muir Woods, then after several hours, we’d finish by driving the 10 minutes down to Muir Beach.  The point of that was to show them the creek, Redwood creek, one of the last free flowing creeks in California and one of the last unstocked winter river courses for coho silver salmon in the world.  Here, at the mouth of the creek, much of the year a sand bar separates the river from the sea.  During heavy storms in December and January, the sand bar breaks free, the river rushes, and the salmon, guided mostly by smell and other unknown mysteries, return after two years at sea to spawn and die upstream.  I’ve watched them in the creek in December in Muir Woods, with the young children by my side marveling at them.  At that time, around 10-15 years ago, only 200-300 were left running this seven mile course.  The creek, over many years, had gotten degraded through developed picnic areas, parking lots, and a choked out watershed.

In the three years since I was last here, a massive restoration project has been going on to re-alter the creek back to its natural, historical course.  Using old photos, this could be mapped out.  The nearby drainage was widened so more rainwater could flow into the stream, non native invasive kikuyu grass that was choking the stream beds was bulldozed out and natives were planted, the marshy inlet was widened (ducks are there all the time these days), and a 100 year flood bridge was built.  The project is taking a rest in 2012 and in 2013 the present parking lot will be restored to natural habitat and parking moved farther away from the stream.  The work is done during the summer months to minimize wildlife impact.

Creekbed restoration area to be planted


$1 million bridge

Since I’ve been here this month, several times a week Park Service employees come to monitor the water, and at least once a week a crew of volunteers arrive to plant natives.  Last year with all the rains 90% of the plantings survived.  This year they expect only 30% to live.

A Park service employee told me that only 8 salmon were counted last year.  Last year Northern California had some of its heaviest rains in decades…a good time for salmon to spawn.  The young woman I was talking to was shocked to find out that only 15 years ago 300 salmon were counted.  300 were low then.  Today, she would have been happy with that 300.

Sunset at Muir Beach

This is a good project.  Too bad it took so long for this to happen.  I’m not sure why it took this long.  Even when I was guiding, little changes were occurring.  Years ago they took out the picnic tables and let the native marsh return.  Over 12 years ago the Park Service corded off certain areas in order to restore the native dunes.  They were also doing studies way back then on nesting Peregrines at Muir Beach.  Maybe this was planned all along, and the massive amounts of money it took to do this project, plus the coordination, took a lot of time.  The salmon didn’t have that kind of time.

One hopes the rains will come and the salmon will begin returning in numbers.  But remember, as recently as the early 1900’s, when salmon entered the San Francisco Bay to journey up the Sacramento River and spawn, they clogged the neck of the Carquinez Strait leading into the river.  “there were so many salmon you could cross the strait on their backs” said an old timer.

Looking up the drainage from Muir Beach

Soon salmon might be just a fading memory, written in the history books.  But I’m glad the Park Service is trying, and they are doing a good job with this project.  Another stream in Marin, Lagunitas Creek, had a lot of effort put into it years ago to encourage salmon to run there again.  I understand some salmon have returned.  Unfortunately, their complete river course will always be blocked by Peters Dam which forms Kent Lake, a reservoir containing the drinking water for Marin County, built in 1954.  The provided link above says we are in an extinction vortex, the “now-or-never point”.

Salmon on Redwood Creek, a creek that no one uses for water; a creek without a dam, spurs little controversy nor objections for salmon restoration.  This is in direct contrast to the Sage Grouse plan by the BLM.  They watered down all the science and are trying to meld cattle into their plan even though livestock grazing accounts for the decline of sage grouse habitat in the first place.   The Feds won’t list Sage Grouse as endangered yet either.  Too many other priority endangered species are ahead of them, they say.  Until we value what little we have left, politics and short-sightedness will be thrown into the mix of habitat restoration, and it might be too little, too late, like its’ been with the California salmon.

Muir beach allows off-leash dogs. My non-native friend at Muir Beach

Zone 4- Low Tide zone in Northern California

An unusually low tide is occurring for these next days.  The trick is to find the perfect combination of a good minus tide with times that you can go out on the reef…in other words, not after sunset or before sunrise.  The low tide today was around, adjusting the time a little north of the bay, 4:14 pm, a wonderful -1.5.  Tomorrow’s low tide will be at 5:00 and a -1.6.  But given that sunset is around 5pm, I decided to go out with my family today.

The place to go in Marin County to tide pool is Duxbury Reef.  Its part of Point Reyes National Seashore and, at a mile long, its the largest shale intertidal reef in North America.  To get there, you have to know where Bolinas is.  That is a trick in itself, because Bolinas is the ‘town of no signs’.  Bolinas townspeople are famous for taking the road signs down that the county puts up.  Bolinas is a wonderful little blast-from-the-past village hanging on the tip of the spit at the lagoon. Agate Beach where the reef is, is on the road to Bolinas but not in the actual town.

The reason you want to get a real good minus tide, is that you want to be able to walk out to the lowest zone.  Marine biologists divide the intertidal area into four zones.  Zone 4 is the zone that is rarely exposed to the air and for only very short periods of time.  Special plants and animals inhabit this zone, which, of course, you rarely can observe unless you want to scuba dive in a wet suit in cold water.

I’ve taken a few marine biology classes and done quite a bit of tide pooling in my past.  One of the ways you know that you are at the farthest reaches of the low tide zone is the presence of sea urchins.

Sea urchin

I met a fellow at the beach entrance taking notes on the visitors today.  He was working with the California Academy of Sciences who regularly study this reef.  I haven’t been to the reef at a minus tide this low since the early 2000’s.  I asked about the reef’s health.  He told me that this reef is, in general, healthier than its been in the past except for the urchins.  I noticed there are visibly less urchins than 10 years ago and he confirmed this.  He said they are not sure why.  It is possible that, since this little guy is an Asian delicacy, people are illegally harvesting it.  Sea urchins are almost the sole food of sea otters, so much so that their bones are visibly purple when they die.  

Another sign that you are in zone 4 is the presence of the Giant Green Anemone.  They have stinging tentacles to catch and kill their prey.  Its fun to touch them as their tentacles feel ‘sticky’.  When you touch them they close up.  My son said he’s got lots of memories of going around touching these guys.  If you keep your finger there, they’ll close up on your finger.  But don’t worry, you can always get your finger out.  They’re not stronger than us.  My bio teacher used to say that its ok to touch using your protective skin, but don’t lick them because your mucous membranes and smooth muscles aren’t protected. He said you’d have to go to the hospital then.  I decided not to lick them today.

Giant California Green anemone garden

I have no idea what this anemone ate

Sea grass was everywhere, one of the few flowering plants and its at the low tide zone.  Pisaster giganteus, the giant sea star (they are not starfish because they are not rightly fish) comes in purple and blue.  It predates on mussels and is found only at this low tide.  We found large rocks covered in every inch with mussels as well as barnacles.  The orange sea star is a mid-tide zone animal as it can stand the desiccation better.  We found this one with part of its stomach hanging out.  That’s because when a sea star eats, unlike us who keep our stomachs inside, they throw their stomachs outside their bodies and surround their meal, digesting it outside of their bodies.  Interesting.

Hard to see its extruded stomach in the middle that my son is taking a photo of.

My most favorite animal to look for are nudibranchs.  Essentially they are slugs of the sea.  There are over 100 varieties in California, many of fabulous neon-type colors.   They have an interesting relationship with anemones.  They feed on them, storing their stinging cells, or nematocysts, in their bodies.  These ‘stolen’ nematocysts help protect the slugs from predators, firing when they try and take a bite.  We saw several varieties today, with a total of about 10 individuals, which is a lot of good spotting.

Nudibranch in middle of photo

When the tide was at its lowest, we began heading back, mostly because the sun would be setting in 1/2 hour.  What a great time.  The California coast has a lot to offer, and a lot of reason for all of us to protect it for generations to come.

The Reef exposed at low tide

Duxbury Reef is here