Every summer fish biologists across the state suction snorkel masks onto their faces. With scuba diving flashlights in hand, they crawl, swim, and slither up the tributaries of rivers literally counting the number and species of salmon they see to measure the health of the population. This method to monitor the salmon and steelhead populations is effective and low tech and it hasn’t changed much over the years. But the salmon population in California has changed.
I’m on Willow Creek up near where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean, but no matter where you are in California salmon snorkel surveys start in a pretty similar fashion.
Three fish biologists from the group California Sea Grant climb into big black balloon-like dry suits, hop over fences and scurry down steep river banks, whacking away brush to get to the river bed.
They spit in their goggles to stop them from fogging up, check to make sure their field computers and flashlights are working, and prepare themselves for a face full of cold water.
“The first pool of the morning is always like a nice wakeup,” says Elizabeth Ruiz, one of the fish biologists on the team.
Then, they do what’s called the steelhead shuffle.
Mariska Obedzinski is the program leader and tells me this is one of her favorite spots to survey.
“So we’re looking upstream into this clear cold water, there’s a lot of gravel, huge redwoods all around us, some of the redwoods are falling across the creek. It’s really quiet and peaceful. If I were a juvenile coho or steelhead, this is where i would want to live, it’s so gorgeous.”
Coho salmon spend their entire first year of life in freshwater streams like these before heading to the sea where they live for one or two years. Then, they return to the same freshwater spot to lay eggs of their own.
Each summer these biologists also return here to count the number of coho salmon and steelhead trout. The data paints a picture of the health of the endangered species, and the entire ecosystem. It gets used by other local organizations like the Sonoma County Water Agency, and national organizations like Fish and Wildlife to help justify restoration projects. They may look silly, but their methods are calculated, even the steelhead shuffle.
“When the water is really shallow, you can’t really see the fish in there, so you we're just trying to chase em’ up and you just kind of shuffle your feet to get the fish to move up to a place where you can count them,” Mariska says.
Then she crouches down on all fours, lowers her face and body in the water and starts to pull herself up the stream - part swimming, part floating, part crawling when the stream gets too shallow.
She peers under downed redwood trees and the pools that form underneath them with her flashlight, checking to see if any fish are hiding in there. She herds any fish she spots in front of her so she doesn’t count the same one twice.
“We snorkel in as little as a couple inches of water, we really can drag ourselves through it to get numbers and eyes on the fish,” Elizabeth says.
They have to be quick and stealthy and sly.
“From above it just looks like this tiny little puddle, but when you're looking under water, it’s like ‘wow there’s a whole other world under here,’ you can see insects, you can see different fish,” Mariska says.
On shore, we stay quiet and still. We crane our necks and follow Elizabeth as she rounds the bend of the pool. She emerges, dripping wet, looking like a creature from the black lagoon and peels off her mask.
“No fish,” she says. Mariska types a ‘0’ into her tiny orange field computer, and we trek on to the next section.
We will visit about 25 different pools today in the creek. This summer, they’ll survey nearly 100 different streams that make up the Russian River. Mariska’s been collecting data this way almost 15 years. Since she grew up along a stream in Marin County, she’s actually been counting salmon for much longer.
When she was a kid her family would celebrate the return of salmon each fall; the rivers would be practically overflowing with fish.
“Every winter one of the things we would always do together is look for the fish. We have the big first rain and we had certain little walks that we would do along the creeks to go see the fish,” she says.
Mariska helped start the Russian River’s snorkel survey back in 2004. She’d trek up and down streams and not see a single fish. A year later, coho salmon moved from a threatened species to an endangered one. Biologists counted fewer than 10 fish returning to the Russian River to spawn that year. A history of population growth and development along the river is partly to blame, with people logging trees, digging wells, mining gravel, watering grape vines, and building dams. That’s all really hard on salmon.
“So for them to complete their life-cycle, every piece of the puzzle has to be in good enough shape for them to do that,” Mariska adds.
So, government agencies and non-profit conservation groups worked to save the species, starting a fish hatchery to grow and release more salmon, building a fish ladder to help salmon get over dams, convincing landowners to build rainwater storage systems, and pulling fallen trees into the river, to create better salmon habitat.
“Many years ago there was a lot of effort to clear these streams of all the wood and clear the channels, and now there’s a ton of work to put all this wood back in because it's so important for helping these fish populations recover,” Mariska says.
Over time, the numbers from the snorkel surveys can tell biologists where to focus their efforts. For us, the restored salmon habitat creates a slippery obstacle course as we trek over and under downed trees to snorkel more pools further up the river.
Some have no fish like the first pool. Others are more promising. You can tell it’s good news from the shore when you hear a little peep come out of the snorkel. We start to hear numbers like two fish and five and 10 fish being yelled back. Even though I don’t have a mask on, I begin to see some salmon, too.
The fish are tiny, no bigger than the length of my pointer finger. Not what you’d expect to see when you picture a salmon. These are just juveniles, born here when their parents defeated all odds and laid their eggs here last fall. Mariska says this means the restoration efforts are working. Then she lowers her body and face into maybe 2 inches of water to snorkel. It’s not a lot, but with even just a trickle of water, these salmon are extremely resilient. It’s just enough for them to survive.