California’s severe drought is hitting both human and animal communities hard. While it is easy to see the devastation on land through photographs of parched land and withering crops, the plight of the state’s aquatic species is more difficult to detect. Due to shrinking rivers and creeks, Coho salmon could be facing extinction south of San Francisco. Without enough precipitation to swell inland waterways, the fish are stranded in the ocean and unable to travel to their traditional spawning grounds.

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Coho salmon used to embark upon some of the most storied salmon runs in the West. Hundreds of thousands of fish would make their way inland to reproduce along the coast ranging from the top of California down to Monterey Bay. The species is now considered threatened, and biologists fear that the drought will wipe out populations along wide swaths of their native territories.

In Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, sandbars prevent access to the creeks the salmon need to gain access to spawning grounds. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife fears that the situation is so dire that the Central Coast coho could be completely wiped out south of the Golden Gate. The one access point that is still available in Marin county has lured very few fish into Lagunitas Creek, an area historically used to assess population health.

To try and entice the fish to make their journey from the ocean, 29 million gallons of water were diverted from Kent Lake in Marin. Biologists recorded extremely low numbers of salmon eggs in the watershed – nearly half of the number observed last year. Juvenile coho are also feeling the stress as their watery homes shrink.

To keep the species alive south of San Francisco, fisheries like the Scott Creek hatchery in Santa Cruz are doing their best to breed coho. Yet, without anywhere to put them, recovery will undoubtedly be an enormous challenge. With Governor Brown’s recent suspension of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regulations, biologists will also have fight to keep already limited water from the Sacramento Delta from being sucked up by farming interests in the Central Valley. Unless an environmental and political balance can be achieved, the coho salmon will be left high and dry.

Via SF Gate

Images via USFWS and NOAA