By Jason Hoppin
Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ — Wading into the San Lorenzo River beneath the Riverside Avenue bridge, volunteers string a net across the width of a wide bend. The net is full of holes, but is seen as a barrier against the extinction of one of the Central Coast’s key fish species.
One by one, the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project plucks endangered coho salmon from the water. They will be relocated to a Scott Creek hatchery, part of a man-made correction to address a drought so severe that Scott Creek — the backbone of the coho population — is still cut off from the Monterey Bay in the middle of what should be the rainy season.
“To me, this is significant,” said Matt McCaslin as the first coho is loaded onto a truck for transport north. “Just getting one is huge.”
McCaslin, a Salmon and Trout Project board member, directed the effort under guidance from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, whose biologists waded in up to their shoulders to help rescue fish.
Coho have taken hits in the past, occasionally disappearing from all but Scott Creek. But Wednesday’s relocation effort was the first time in two decades fishery supporters have taken such drastic measures.
Ultimately, volunteers hoped to find three dozen adult coho in the San Lorenzo, once a populous coho run but where they now are rarely found. That changed this year, with coho returning from the sea unable to get into Scott Creek to spawn and turning instead to the county’s most urbanized river.
“They’re very integral to our captive brood program. In fact, if the captive brood program fails, they will go extinct,” McCaslin said, adding that if left alone in the San Lorenzo, the fish would all die within two months. “This operation here is very, very integral to the whole operation.”
The last several years have not been good for coho, which are born in freshwater streams before making their way to the ocean to later return to their home for spawning. But the low winter rain totals are posing a new threat for coho, which spawn earlier in the year than other salmonoids.