Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout

Two green-backed, red-sided fish swim in a shallow creek.
Two male coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) spawners.

Point Reyes National Seashore protects a portion of the watershed necessary to ensure the safe migration and spawning of coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and steelhead trout (O. mykiss). This protection is necessary as both species have been directly impacted by human activities and development. Healthy creeks are one step toward maintaining and hopefully increasing their populations. Their true hope for survival lies in changing human attitudes, behaviors, and priorities.

Armed with chest waders and measuring sticks, National Park Service staff and volunteers brave streams swollen from the winter rains to survey for spawning coho and steelhead. They track spawners, carefully count carcasses, and take tissue samples for DNA analysis, providing valuable information to study the abundance and distribution of these fish. This is part of the work of the Coho and Steelhead Restoration Project.

When coho salmon and steelhead trout were placed on the threatened species list, the National Park Service initiated a five-year project to identify, evaluate, restore, and enhance coho and steelhead populations and their habitat within three West Marin parks, Point Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Muir Woods National Monument. The Coho and Steelhead Restoration Project is focusing on Pine Gulch, Redwood, Olema, and Lagunitas creeks and their watersheds.

The project has the following six objectives:

  • To learn what may influence the reproductive success of coho and steelhead by looking at present stream conditions.
  • To investigate past stream conditions and how these have affected populations of salmon and steelhead.
  • To assess current coho salmon and steelhead abundance and distribution.
  • To develop and implement a plan for restoring and monitoring the fish and their habitat.
  • To inform the public and other resource managers.
  • To encourage community involvement through education and restoration of the watersheds.

The benefits of this program extend far beyond these salmonids. Healthy streams and riparian systems in West Marin will protect habitat for a myriad of other aquatic and land creatures such as river otters, California freshwater shrimp (an endangered species), California red-legged frogs (a threatened species), and migratory songbirds that nest in creekside bushes and shrubs.

The success of this ambitious program depends on the active participation of the public, local community conservation organizations, adjacent landowners, and public agencies. By working together, we will lay the groundwork for sustainable and healthy streams, riparian zones, and watersheds.

More information about Coho and Steelhead may be found on the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center's Coho Salmon & Steelhead Trout page, along with Seasonal Updates. For information on when and where to see Coho and Steelhead, visit our Viewing Coho Salmon page.

For information about becoming involved in the Coho and Steelhead Restoration Project, call project staff at 415-464-5191.

The Salmon Protection And Watershed Network (SPAWN) is a local non-profit organization that works to protect endangered salmon in the Lagunitas Watershed. SPAWN offers walks to view spawning salmon for the public and for school groups, in addition to offering seminars, training, and volunteer and internship opportunities.

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Learn More About Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout

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    Multimedia Presentations

    From 2007 to 2012, Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center Science Communication Interns produced a series of podcasts, videos, and audio-slide shows exploring science from Bay Area national parks. Two of these The Natural Laboratory multimedia products focused on coho salmon. View the videos or listen to the podcasts below. Visit our Multimedia Presentations: The Natural Laboratory page for additional videos and podcasts.


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    Ben Atencio: So, an adult coho is about 60 to 75 centimeters in length, which is…about like that big. And, um, they're bright red on the sides and the males have, um, a really hooked snout that's kind of like that. Whereas the females are, kind of, like, you know, normal fish mouths. And, um, they swim into the creeks in the winter and spawn. The female lays the eggs, the eggs hatch into fry, and then they grow into juveniles, and then they grow into smolts, which swim out of the rivers into the oceans. And they live in the ocean for about two years. And then, they come back as adults and spawn. And it keeps going and going. So, it's like a three-year lifecycle.


    Mike Reichmuth: We monitor coho, really, to get the status and trend of the species.

    They usually spawn up near the headwaters of the stream. And then, continue to use the rest of the stream during their life, all the way 'til they, uh, get to the estuary, and out to the ocean. So, by monitoring them over their entire lifecycle, we're able to really get the, uh, health of the entire ecosystem of the stream.

    Currently, we have, um, three main creeks that we monitor. Uh, we monitor Redwood Creek in the south. Uh, we also monitor Pine Gulch Creek, which is in the Bolinas area. And then, our most northern creek that we monitor is Olema Creek, uh, which is a part of Point Reyes National Seashore. These three creeks are…are some of the most southern populations, especially if you look along the Pacific Coast. Only Santa Cruz is south of us.

    In general, we have, uh, our monitoring encompasses three main life stages. Uh, one is we monitor the adults when they come back to spawn. Their ability, really, to, uh, overcome obstacles and get to their spawning habitat, uh, is pretty amazing.

    In the springtime, we monitor the smolt life stage. This is the time when the fish are going out to the ocean.

    [Counting Smolts]

    Ben Atencio: When you get to the site, we have, um, the fyke net, which leads into the pipe, which leads into the box, and we check the box to see if there's any fish, clear out all the debris and all the fish. And then, um, we count the fish. We, uh, measure 'em to millimeters and weigh 'em to the hundredth of a gram. And, so, yeah, we just go from trap to trap, uh, counting the fish.

    It, kind of, seems like for the smolts, at least, every fish, kind of, has its own personality. Like, some fish will be, like, kinda, really squirmy and really fighty, and then, other fish will just be really, like, relaxed and, like, you can just handle them just fine.

    [Current Status and the Future]

    Mike Reichmuth: And then, we monitor the...the, uh, fish when they're in the summertime, when they're considered juveniles, uh, rearing in the creek. And, uh, during this life stage, this gives us an idea of what the success was, uh, in terms of their ability to survive the spring and also, uh, feed and grow.

    Currently, our monitoring is showing that the population is decreasing. In the last, uh, few years, uh, we've noticed a large decline. Um, even before that decline, they were only at about five percent of what their historic levels were. So, really, what we're trying to do is figure out: why is it decreasing. And then figure out: how do do we save these...these fish, uh, from, uh, from no longer being in these creeks?

    We have activities such as damming; uh, infrastructure such as buildings, roads; um, water withdrawals; fishing; um, and agriculture are some of the main threats, though, we've had in the past. Currently, we still have some of those.

    Hopefully, through, uh, some of the park's most recent efforts of restoring some of the key areas of the creek that the coho, um…we know the coho will utilize, uh, we'll be able to, uh, increase the population and restore this popu…these populations back to their historic levels.

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    4 minutes, 53 seconds

    While spawning coho in Central California once numbered in the tens of thousands, estimates now put their numbers at fewer than 500. Learning about the coho population through monitoring helps researchers target efforts aimed at helping the coho recover. Fishery Biologist Mike Reichmuth and Intern Ben Atencio discuss our endangered coho salmon and how they are monitored in the Bay Area National Parks.


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    Science Behind the Scenery: Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout Video

    In 2004, the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center produced a DVD entitled "Science Behind the Scenery." One segment of this video series features coho salmon and steelhead trout.


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    [water flowing in a stream]

    [Brannon Ketcham] The watersheds of coastal Marin County have supported coho salmon and steelhead trout for thousands of years. In the last 50 years, throughout the California coast, we have witnessed a dramatic decline in fish populations. This decline coincides with impacts to the watersheds in which these fish survive

    [water flowing in a stream]

    In 1996, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed coho salmon as threatened. The Park Service started a project to find out how many fish they had and how they were doing within the...the watersheds within the parks.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    As things went on, we learned more and more about the fish and, sort of, all the habitats that they used. And a lot of the work that we've come up with has shown that these populations in, uh, coastal Marin County are, sort of, the southern-most stable populations of coho in their range.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    Coho salmon have always been thought of as being weak because there are fewer of them around and they're harder to find. But, really, what we found watching them is that they're the more aggressive, the more dominant fish when you have steelhead and coho together.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    Coho salmon have a, uh, pretty stringent three-year-lifecycle. Um, starting from the adult phase, um, November, December, January the period of time where the adults come up into the freshwater streams to spawn. Um, for the adults, they've spent about six to 18 months out in the ocean and they've got about three weeks to enter the freshwater, find a place to spawn and, um, do that before they pass away.

    But, if they spawn successfully, the eggs will stay in the gravel for about six weeks before they hatch. And then, another six weeks, the alevin, or egg sac fry, will stay in the gravels before emerging to the water column. And, so, it's normally February, late February, early March that we start seeing the, um, young of year juveniles come out of the gravel and they populate the pools. And they'll spend a full year in the fresh water, so, March–April through the next March–April, before they head out to the ocean.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    Steelhead trout they can live anywhere from one to three years in fresh water, sometimes four or five, before going out to the ocean. They don't need to go to the ocean. The other thing about steelhead trout is if they're ocean run, they can come back and spawn and go back out to the ocean. So, they're...are some of the fish that actually can spawn multiple years. They're able to adjust to changes in the, uh, weather conditions. If you have a really bad year, you might lose a lot of the fish in that watershed. But that's okay, because maybe some of them will come back and reproduce next year, as well. Whereas coho salmon, they're pretty much...they have one chance to reproduce and that's it.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    The redd is a, uh, the egg nest, r e d d, really consists of multiple pockets of eggs. The female will lay their eggs and the...the male will, um, kind of, broadcast, um, his milt over the eggs. And then, the female will go ahead and bury those eggs. And if she buries those eggs, she digs a new pit where she can lay more eggs. So, a redd is anywhere...sometimes two to four meters long, two to four meters wide, so it's a big area where the fish will work the gravel. And, basically, within that zone, there are multiple pockets of eggs.

    The typical location for a redd would be, sort of, in this pool tail out section where you have a transition from, um, kind of, flat water into a riffle zone. And the ideal, or the advantage to that is that the water is accelerating, and not just on the surface, but it's accelerating through the gravels. So, it's a very good way of delivering oxygen to the eggs, um, while they're in the gravel.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    When we started this work, we were really focused in on...on, uh, coho salmon and steelhead, but we found, everywhere we looked, we'd find steelhead and...and coho were few and far between. So, we really keyed in on their, uh, their conditions.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    John West Fork is the largest tributary of Olema Creek and, in 1997, we...started...looking at that watershed and saying, "Gosh, this has lots of potential."

    [water flowing in a stream]

    There was a culvert along Highway 1 that was really difficult for fish to get through, in terms of adult migration.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    So, we're on the John West Fork of Olema Creek. And this is a riparian exclusion zone that we constructed in 1997, in cooperation with, uh, the local rancher. Um, prior to the fence being constructed, the creek bed, itself, looked much like the...the area over here, to the left, where we have, um, regular livestock access. In cooperation with the rancher, we were able protect the riparian zone. Um, but what we need to do is provide, uh, access to other pastures that the, uh, cattle use. The cattle have access to the grazing lands. We have a riparian zone that we've been working on since '97, including a great deal of willow planting and some small-scale, um, streambank stabilization structures.

    One of the interesting things is: why are we protecting a dry creek bed? And when you're out here in the wintertime and there's a great deal of flow coming down this stream channel and you see fish swimming up it and spawning, you''ll know why.

    [water flowing in a stream]

    Here at Point Reyes National Seashore, we monitor and study coho salmon and steelhead trout as indicators of watershed health. The survival of these fish is the survival of California watersheds.

    [water flowing in a stream fades away]

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    6 minutes, 34 seconds

    The seventh part of the ten-part Science Behind the Scenery documentary featuring hydrologist Brannon Ketcham talking about coho salmon and steelhead trout and efforts to protect their riparian habitat at Point Reyes National Seashore.


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    Science & Research Project Summaries

    From 2006 to 2018, Point Reyes National Seashore and Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center (PCSLC) staff and communication interns assisted scientists conducting research through the PCSLC and the San Francisco Bay Area Inventory & Monitoring Network to produce a series of Resource Project Summaries, two of which were salmon and trout at Point Reyes. These one- to two-page summaries provide information about the questions that the researchers hoped to answer, details about the project and methods, and the results of the research projects in a way that is easy to understand.

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    Last updated: February 4, 2024

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