The Russian River watershed was once a stronghold for Central California’s coho salmon population, but Obedzinski says things like extreme habitat loss and drought years have led to the downturn. According to California Sea Grant, the state’s coho has dwindled down to an estimated 15% of its population in the 1940s.
Obedzinski’s group, along with federal and local agencies, have been helping rebuild the coho population in Sonoma County through a combination of restoration efforts, monitoring and the hatchery program, which began in 2004. That was when some of the last handful of coho born in the watershed were captured and bred.
“It was a last attempt to really save the coho salmon in the Russian River watershed,” says Obedzinkski.
Now the program releases thousands of smolt, at different life stages, throughout the year in the Russian’s tributaries. More than 1.5 million smolt have been released since the program began. The fish are closely monitored to see how they're surviving, but watching over these young fish after releasing them into the wild is no easy task.
Teams of biologists go out daily to check traps in five of the watershed’s creeks, hoping to find a mix of healthy hatchery-born and natural-born salmon.
A contraption, made up netting and pipes, funnels anything going downstream into a covered, wooden box. On any given day, anywhere from a handful to hundreds of smolt can be found inside. And sometimes, other aquatic animals get stuck in the trap too.
“If there's something big, you can hear it splashing around in there,” says Nick Bauer, a fisheries biologist with California Sea Grant.
Bauer and his team count and scan every single coho they find before letting them go back downstream to the Russian River. A metal detector helps identify which fish have an implanted wire tag, which means they're hatchery-born.
Then a portion are measured and weighed. An even smaller portion get trackers implanted in them, which help biologists monitor the migratory habits of the smolt and find out whether the fish come back to these creeks as adults to spawn.
“We'd like to see wild fish being able to complete their life cycle in the streams on their own,” says Obedzinksi. “We ultimately would like to see the whole hatchery component go out of business.”
Obedzinksi says the program is making progress. About 1,200 natural-born smolt were recorded in the watershed in 2018, the second highest amount documented since the program began, according to a recent report from California Sea Grant.
“If this program wasn't in place, coho salmon would pretty much be extinct in the watershed,” says Bauer.
But Bauer also says it’s not just about the coho. These fish are a cornerstone of a healthy ecosystem.
“Over 127 different species will feed on salmon,” says Bauer. “And they perform this function of bringing ocean derived nutrients back to our freshwater systems and increase the health of the whole system.”
Now the smolt heading to the Pacific Ocean are on their own. They’re at the beginning of what can be a treacherous journey. Most will spend about a year and a half growing up in the ocean, facing all sorts of predators and possibly another drought, before attempting to make their way back to the Russian River to spawn.