Salmon in Marin: Recent Struggles of a Keystone Species

“The salmon was put here by the Creator for our use as part of the cycle of life. It gave to us, and we, in turn, gave back to it through our ceremonies… Their returning meant our continuance was assured because the salmon gave up their lives for us. In turn, when we die and go back to the earth, we are providing that nourishment back to the soil, back to the riverbeds, and back into that cycle of life.”Carla HighEagle, Nez Perce

Salmon feed ecosystems. They sustain cultures. They even shape the landscape. As the Nez Peirce tribe says, “We are all salmon people.”

For many native tribes, salmon is sacred. They shape diet, societies, and religion, and are one of the most important aspects of many tribal cultures. The story goes that when the Creator was getting ready to bring people to Earth, he called a council of all creation. He asked this council for a gift for the people, something that would help them survive. Salmon was the first to come forward, offering himself to feed the people.

A coho salmon in a river.
Coho salmon. Photo: Oregon and Washington Bureau of Land Management / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Salmon go on an extraordinary journey, taking them full circle from birth in their home streams to their eventual return, all ending in procreation and death. Salmon’s miraculous journey can span hundreds to thousands of miles. They travel instinctively through freshwater and saltwater, thriving in each. They are destined to go against the flow of nature, swim upstream, leap up waterfalls, and defy gravity on the way to their birthplace.

Salmon enrich entire ecosystems, carrying nutrients from the ocean all the way to the rivers and streams of their birthplace. They are vessels of fertilizer, enhancing aquatic ecosystems through the cycling of nutrients. When they die, their bodies fertilize the environment, providing nourishment to other organisms and the earth. The benefits that salmon provide to countless species and the habitats they live in are what make them a keystone species.

Despite their resilience, Coho salmon, a species of salmon found in the North Pacific Ocean and throughout freshwater rivers in Alaska all the way to California, have recently come to face an abundance of obstacles. In California, one reason coho are endangered is because of a loss of habitat, most of which results from the construction of dams on rivers and streams. In Marin, dams on the Lagunitas Creek watershed are a major obstacle to the survival of salmon. Before dams were built in Marin, the average population of coho salmon returning to spawn was 5,000 per year. In 2022, it was as little as 500. Dams block travel between spawning and the ocean, disrupting their centuries-long migration.

Without dams and the accessible water they provide, California would be drastically different. Dams have made it possible for California to grow into what it is today, and although dams have helped us, the disruption they cause to river ecosystems is detrimental. In Marin, a number of smaller dams have been removed, allowing coho to access more area. However, salmon are still blocked from around 50% of their historical territory.

One project to improve salmon habitat in Marin was the removal of the dam on the former San Geronimo golf course. The blockage of this creek system was detrimental to Marin’s ecosystem, pushing a vital species to the brink of extinction. In 2020, this 100-year-old dam was torn down, reopening a crucial breeding ground for coho populations. SPAWN, a salmon protection organization, expects nearly 500 coho to travel up the river in the following years.

Over the last few decades, development has been steadily encroaching on creeks and rivers, decreasing habitat quality. Because of this, Marin County has introduced an ordinance to stop development on the San Geronimo Creek, hopefully improving conditions for future salmon runs.

Salmon connect and improve every community and ecosystem they touch. Together, agencies and individuals can work to protect and restore this magnificent species. After all, we are all salmon people.

How you can help, right now