The federal government unveiled a sweeping plan to try and restore west Marin County's dwindling Coho salmon population, one of the last watersheds in California where the endangered fish return to spawn.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described the recovery plan as a long-term roadmap toward restoring the Coho's numbers, which have declined sharply since the 1940s when California's population was estimated at around a half-million. Despite years of dangerously low numbers, state leaders were encouraged by a slight rebound of Coho in Marin County.
"We've come a long way in Lagunitas Creek in Marin County," said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's known up and down the state as a stronghold of salmon effort."
The Lagunitas Creek watershed, a warren of winding creeks and streams in West Marin, is considered one of the few successful Coho spawning grounds left in California. Still, the already low number of returning salmon there dropped even further several years ago. Todd Steiner of the environmental group SPAWN said the numbers are slowly rebounding. He said the group recorded more returning Coho this year, than three years ago.
"It's a good sign," Steiner said. "We have to keep reality in mind though that we only have a couple hundred fish. It's not enough to sustain a run."
The new federal plan, a requirement of the Coho's addition to the endangered list, calls for restorative actions stretching from Mendocino to Santa Cruz. The actions are aimed at restoring and protecting critical Coho habitat.
"It identifies the type of things that need to be done in those watersheds, such as reducing sediment, adding woody debris for fish habitats," said Chris Yates of the National Marine Fishery Service.
The plan calls for cities and counties to work with private landowners living along Coho habitat. It also called on the government to raise money to buy up critical lands, and to work with private industry such as timber companies to reduce impacts on the salmon grounds .
"I think along our north coast, it's possible to bring Coho back in a generation," Bonham said. "Statistically, that's about 36 years."
Officials estimated all the recommendations listed in the plan could total $1.5 billion over the next century. They also cautioned the plan is voluntary -- leaving it up to cities and counties to enact their own plans.
Steiner's group has sued Marin County in an effort to force it to pass a moratorium on development along the watershed, and to limit land owner actions that could potentially damage Coho habitat.
"You can still cut down virtually all the trees right next to the stream," said Steiner. "You can put a patio right next to the stream. And these are death by a thousand cuts. And these are why these fish are on the verge of extinction."
Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey said he was opposed to dictating policy to homeowners, instead seeking more diplomatic solutions.
"I personally think moratoriums are the wrong way to go," Kinsey said. "We need to educate and incentivize to be partners with landowners and we're doing that."