Ah yes, a new year has begun. And it seemed right that such a fresh start to the calendar ushered in a new beginning for this coastal creek. My usual approach from the north coming down a gentle grade on Highway 1 revealed the dramatic change. The sandbar had breached. The pent up waters spreading over the marsh and delta finally freed. A completely new terrain emerged under the bright morning light of the new year.
For the last few winters, within hours of the sandbar's breaching, hundreds of fish died inside the marsh. Scientists are just beginning to suspect the reasons for these fish kills.
Local fishermen, using field observations and water quality samples, theorize that as the sand bar opens, the outgoing rush of water causes turbulence such as that you'd see after removing a plug in a bathtub. In the case of the marsh, fine sediments, mud and decayed vegetation on the bottom are stirred up and mix with the cleaner layers of water above. A distinctive smelly plume of "muck" is mobilized, releasing oxygen-deficient water and hydrogen sulfide, suffocating all kinds of fish including hundreds of steelhead. In 2006, State Parks recorded 170 dead fish -- mostly juvenile steelhead. Although it's highly probable that many more were killed.
These recent fish kills cast a pall over me as I grabbed my pack and binoculars and walked out along the marsh. The smell of warm, salt air filled my senses. The build up of fresh-water from the winter rains now was drained to the ocean. The blanket of water lifted to reveal a new landscape. The channels coursing through this wetland came into relief. The varied salt-water grasses exposed along their banks for the first time since October. And the muddy banks and leeves basked in the bright January sun and fumed sea-salt.
Their swimming pool mostly drained, the hundreds of ducks and other waterfowl departed. The shallow water and muddy banks now beckoned a small cast of Snowy Egrets. These shorebirds instinctly sensed easy meals of fish left behind in isolated pools that dotted the marsh. Other opportunists included about six anglers casting near the mouth of the creek. I suspected the adult steelhead were still swimming safely off-shore. The plume of creek sediment and bio-mass not quite stretching to their noses yet. It was the younger steelhead smolt I worried about. I considered myself fortunate to be witnessing the beginning of a new cycle and breathing in the rich, salt-air.