Something fishy at the Healy

The next to last of the Bureau of Land Management’s King Range lecture series took place at the Healy Senior Center in Redway Tuesday evening. Biologist David Fuller gave about 20 people an informative lesson on fish of the Lost Coast.

There are a number of fish-bearing streams on the Lost Coast, the major ones being Spanish Creek, Cooskie Creek, Big Creek and Big Flat Creek. The fish in those streams have adapted to the peculiarities of the region.

"What happened in Japan is what produced the King Range," Fuller said. Here, the Pacific tectonic plate is sliding under the North American tectonic plate and that action causes earthquakes that thrust the King Range upwards. The 7.2 magnitude quake that happened in 1992 raised the King Range five feet. The King range is one of the highest uplifts in the world and also has one of the highest rainfalls in the world, with seasons of 100" or more being fairly common. The combination of uplift and eroding rainfall and the erosive action of the ocean created landslides that turned into the steep creeks that run from the mountain down to the ocean.

It’s thought that Big Flat and the other creeks that start on the mountain were caused by major landslides. These episodic events don’t just carry water but also sediment, rock and wood to create the riparian environment.

Fire has also played a role in the creation of the King Range, Fuller said. A fire cycle of major fires at roughly 50-year intervals deposit wood into the streams and the wood creates habitat for fish. A study is being done of the wood that entered the streams from the last major fire. All the wood has been marked, counted and tagged and the impact of the burned trees on the fish is being studied. Fuller suggested that the fires are part of a cycle wherein the woody debris required by the fish is replaced periodically through fire.

Northern California Steelhead live in some Lost Coast streams. They are a distinct population segment and federally protected. Fishing is prohibited in the Lost Coast.

Fuller talked about the importance of estuaries, such as the one at the mouth of Mattole River. They provide a vital transitional environment for salmon who must adapt from being a saltwater fish to being a freshwater fish. Their gills change, and their kidneys and stomach. This change can take weeks to accomplish. The fish can make several trips from the ocean through the estuary and into the river. A salmon in the Mattole River made the trip five times.

The fish that inhabit the Lost Coast streams have to make do without an estuary. They make their adaptation in nearshore water where fresh water has intruded and the salt content is not as high.

Other fish inhabit the streams. Coast Range Sculpin are bottom feeders who live within 10 miles of the ocean. Prickly Sculpin live in Cooskie Creek and the Mattole. They are a hardy fish that also live in Clear Lake and in the streams of the Sacramento Valley.

Threespine Sticklefish are only in large streams. Fuller said while salmon are considered a primitive fish, Threespine Sticklefish are considered very advanced. They are easy to raise, which makes them attractive to scientists, particularly fish behaviorists who are interested in their mating behavior.

The Lost Coast also supports a population of salamander and newts. The most common are the newts that are dark with red/orange bellies. Newts travel overland and move around when it rains. They’re also poisonous so don’t think of eating them. They have rough skin compared to salamanders who have slick skin.

Other kinds of life found in the Lost Coast streams include garter snakes. Western Aquatic garter snakes are common in Spanish Creek. They lie on rocks and logs watching the fish and when they see a tasty one they dive into the water and catch it. Rattlesnakes hang out by the water, too.

The Ouzel or Dipper Bird resides in the streams, also. They eat bugs and fish and are thought to have been John Muir’s favorite bird.

Fuller also talked about lampreys. Lampreys, the eels for whom the Eel River was named, will be migrating into local streams next month, in April. They migrate from April into May and spawn in gravel similar to the way that salmon spawn.

A lot of work has been done to protect and create spawning habitat for salmon but until recently not much attention has been paid to eel. However, there is now a conservation program underway to bring the eel back to the North Coast. This program is driven in part by tribal groups for whom the eel was an important food source.

Fuller said that the lamprey can stay in the area for six years as "filter feeders" and then migrate out to the ocean. They are not believed to "home" like salmon do to the same river every year. There are Pacific Lamprey in the Mattole River.

It’s been discovered that eel can’t deal with a 90-degree angle when they are navigating the streams and this fact will now be taken into account to remove obstacles to eel navigation.

Several species of freshwater mussels, including the California Floater, which can live to be 100, can be found in local streams. Scientists from U.C. Davis are studying these species and believe they are carried upstream by salmon. Mussel beds have declined with the decline in salmon, so the species are inter-related.

Crawdads or crayfish seen in the Ettersburg streams are not native to the system. They are red swamp crayfish introduced into the area, perhaps inadvertently, and have remained confined to a small area.

There have been reports of Coho salmon in Telegraph Creek and about 12 years ago a Coho was spotted in the Mattole.

The best time to look for fish is after a storm when the water is clearing and has turned green.

The final lecture in the series will take on Tuesday, March 29. The subject will be birds of prey and will include live birds.

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