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Saving a species

How does a group of people go about trying to save a federally endangered species? The answer, of course, depends on the species. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that it takes a tremendous effort over many years by many dedicated and talented people, all of whom know that in the end their work may not succeed. Ultimately it is society who decides whether or not such efforts, costly in both person hours and dollars, are worthwhile. After all, we are the people who vote elect the legislators to decide how our tax monies are spent. Not only that, but which of the many endangered species should we try to save? Can we save them all? Should we try to anyway? If not, then how do we decide which species are worth the effort? And what should we do about the species that are deemed unworthy?

Erick (green jacket) gives my students an introduction to the weir on Scott Creek
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Today I took my Ecology students to locations on Scott Creek and Big Creek in northern Santa Cruz County, where biologists are working on saving the coho salmon, Onchorhynchus kisutch. Our guide for the day was Erick, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Erick's job is to maintain the genetic diversity of this population, which occupies the southernmost part of the coho's range in North America. The coho is a federally endangered species in California, and this southern population represents the species' best chance for surviving and adapting to the ocean and river conditions that are predicted due to climate change.

Erick explaining how the fish trap works
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Our first stop was at the weir and fish trap on Scott Creek. There are actually two fish traps in this location: one to catch adult salmon swimming upstream and one to catch smolts migrating downstream (more about that in a bit). Adult salmon returning to spawn come into the trap and end up in the box to Erick's right. Every day during the spawning season at least two people come down to the weir to count, measure, sex, and weigh each fish in the trap. Then the salmon are trucked up to the hatchery, where they will be used for spawning under controlled conditions. The stretch of creek behind Erick is located between the fish traps; there are no salmon in it because the adults are all captured by the large trap, and the outgoing smolts are caught in the upstream trap.

Upstream end of the smolt trap on Scott Creek
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

At this point the entire creek passes through those screened panels, and the fish are directed into this box:

Smolt trap on Scott Creek
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The smolts are netted out, put into buckets, and carried downstream past the adult fish trap. From there they migrate out to the ocean, and if all goes well they will spend the next two years feeding and growing before they return to the creek as adults.

Adult coho salmon caught in the trap are trucked up to the hatchery, which is located on Big Creek. There has been a hatchery on this site since the early 1940s. The current installation is operated by the Monterey Salmon and Trout Project, with permission of the landowners and from the state. Erick and his fellow fisheries biologists are charged with maintaining the genetic diversity within this small population of fish. They do so by keeping track of who mates with whom and making sure that closely related individuals do not mate. Each female salmon's eggs are divided into separate batches to be fertilized with as many as four males. Each male's sperm can be used to fertilize up to four females' eggs.

Fertilized eggs are incubated in a chamber set at 11°C and 100% humidity; in other words, they are not incubated in water. Once they hatch they are transferred to trays of water, where they remain until they have used up their entire yolk sac and need to be fed. Each of these trays contains one family of fry; in other words, all of the babies from one female-male mating.

Erick shows us trays containing salmon fry
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From these trays the fishlets move into indoor tanks and then outdoor tanks. They are fed, and this is when they develop one of the bad habits of all hatchery fish: they get used to food coming from above and drifting down. In the wild, a juvenile salmon in a stream feeds on aquatic insects, small crustaceans, and the like. Many of their favored prey items are benthic, but they will also feed on insects at the surface. To do so, they have to spend time going up and down in the water column, when they are at risk of being eaten themselves. Hatchery-reared juveniles don't have predators to deal with and have learned that food lands on the surface of the water. They don't understand the need to remain hidden, and many of them get picked off by birds and other fish.

As a safeguard against an extremely poor return of spawning adults, each year some portion of the juveniles are kept at the hatchery and grown to adulthood on-site. This means that even if very few fish return to the river, or if there aren't enough females, the captive breeders can be used to make up the difference. This year, the 2017-2018 spawning season has so far been successful. As a result there were adult salmon that, for whatever reason, were not used as breeders. Today just happened to be the day that they would be returned to the creeks, where they may go ahead and spawn, and we got to watch part of it.

Returning to the story of the outmigrating juveniles, one of their biggest challenges is smoltification (my new favorite word), the process of altering their physiology in response to increasing salinity as they move towards the ocean. This is a unidirectional change in physiology for salmon; once they have fully acclimated to life in the ocean they cannot re-acclimate to the freshwater stream where they were born. Smoltification takes place over a few to several days. The hatchery has several year-old fish ready to smoltify (I think that's the verb form of the word) and will be releasing them in several batches at approximately two-week intervals starting later in March. The outgoing fish are tagged so that when they return in two years the hatchery staff will be able to determine which batch they came from, helping them understand what release conditions resulted in the greatest survival and return of adults. Kinda cool, isn't it?

The bad news is that as of right now any baby fish released into the creek won't be able to get to the ocean. We haven't had enough rain recently to break through the sand bar that develops on the beach where Scott Creek runs into the sea.

Scott Creek Beach
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It will take some decent rainfall to generate enough runoff to breach the sand bar. A good strong spring tide series would help, if it coincides with a big runoff event. We are supposed to get some rain this weekend and into early next week. I hope it's enough to open the door to the ocean for the smolts. In the meantime, they will hang out on the other side of the highway in the marsh.

Scott Creek just upstream of where it crosses under Highway 1
9 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

They'll have to wait until the ocean becomes available to them, and in the meantime will be vulnerable to predators, especially piscivorous birds. Hopefully the rains in the near forecast will be heavy enough to open up the sand bar and the smolts will be able to continue their journey out to sea. Good luck, little guys!

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