This fish, identified by a fisheries biologist as a Chinook salmon, was seen earlier this week in Codornices Creek. Fishing is not allowed in the creek. Photo: Drew Goetting

The discovery of a 24-inch fish, believed to be a Chinook salmon, in a creek along Berkeley’s northern border with Albany, has inspired a ripple of excitement in the community.

The large fish was seen at least twice this week in Codornices Creek, which runs from the North Berkeley hills, through the city and down along the southern border of University Village, north of Harrison Street. A creek restoration project has been going on since the 1990s in the area, west of Ninth Street, to help with flood control, form a more meandering bed, and improve habitat for fish and other wildlife.

(Fishing is forbidden in the creek throughout the year.)

Seeing a fish this size in such a small creek, said fisheries biologist Jeff Hagar, is “pretty rare” and “very unusual.”

“It’s pretty exciting to have a salmon in any stream, and particularly in a stream in an urban area like that,” said Hagar. “Salmon are creatures of the wild. It’s nice to see them anywhere, and certainly nice to see them in a stream like Codornices Creek.”

Hagar said the Chinook likely came from a fish hatchery in the Central Valley, and got lost on its way upstream, returning from the ocean, to complete its life cycle. Many of the area’s Chinook that are produced right now, he added, tend to be released from hatcheries into the Sacramento River Delta or downstream.

“They haven’t gone through the normal process of hatching in a stream and being reared there before heading to the ocean, so they tend to get lost,” he said. “They don’t know where they’re going and they end up in places where you don’t expect to find them.”

Hagar has consulted on various aspects of the restoration project at Codornices Creek, such as suggesting features that would enhance the habitat for fish like steelhead trout, which are listed as endangered and threatened in California.

He said he’s never seen a steelhead at Codornices, but many creek advocates say they have (and they have video to prove it).

According to the website of the Urban Creeks Council, which is based in Berkeley: “Codornices Creek is Berkeley’s most natural and free-flowing stream, and one of the few East Bay creeks to support a steelhead population. Over the past 15 years, volunteers have restored some of the fish’s habitat in Codornices Creek, and the fish population has responded. Surveys completed in 2006 estimated the Codornices Creek O. mykiss population to be 504 individuals (95% confidence interval 271-738).”

Despite these reports, none of the fish tested thus far have come back as steelheads. (Testing involves killing the fish, according to a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle story about Hagar’s work at Codornices Creek.) Hundreds of trout have been captured and released from the creek over the past decade, but only a couple have been tested.

Hagar was one of multiple scientists to identify the fish at Codornices as a Chinook after receiving photographs from a member of the restoration team. He said he believed it to be a Chinook due to its large size, silvery color, the irregularly shaped black markings on its back, and a lack of redness in the “cheek” area that’s typical of steelhead.

The photographs, along with a video, came from Erik Stromberg and Drew Goetting, of Restoration Design Group in Berkeley. (Stromberg is the one who initially tipped Berkeleyside off to the fish after seeing it Monday. The firm he works for has been involved with creek restoration at Codornices for about a decade.)

YouTube video

Stromberg said, following recent storms, he had a feeling it would be a good time to spot a fish in the creek.

“That’s the perfect time to see a fish, the tail end of the storm when the flow of the creek is receding,” he said Tuesday. “It’s just a good time where fish will often go upstream.”

He was walking with an Albany city staffer when movement in the water caught his eye. He started to record video and walked toward the creek, trying to keep an eye on the shifting water.

“I see the fish. Boom! There it is. It’s a huge fish,” he said. While steelheads can get that long, he said, often they’re more like 12 to 18 inches, and this appeared closer to two feet. “I’ve seen salmon in small streams, but I was really kind of shocked. It’s pretty neat to see. That was in the morning Monday and she’s been there ever since.”

Stromberg said he believed the fish to be female because it appeared to be actively building a nest, which also is called a redd.

“She found a spot within the space she thinks is appropriate to spawn in,” he said. “But she’s very likely to be alone, so it won’t really go anywhere. Chinook really shouldn’t be there. There’s no record of Chinook in this stream.”

Chinook salmon spawn once and then die, decomposing to become part of the waterway.

A view of Codornices Creek shortly after its restoration, February 2011. Photo: Lech Naumovich Photography

Hagar, the biologist, said one or more males often help in the nest building process, which involves digging a hollow into gravel in one or more places, and can last from a day to a week. The female then lays her eggs, which are fertilized by a male. Those eggs stay in the gravel for a period of time depending on the temperature (90 to 150 days after deposition, according to Wikipedia). The fry, or baby fish, come out in the late winter or early spring. (Learn more about the life cycle of salmon.)

If no male Chinook joins the salmon in Codornices, however, she likely would not lay eggs, Hagar said.

“The salmon’s chances of completing its life cycle in Codornices, by laying eggs that would be fertilized by a male, are unlikely. For a fish that has kind of strayed from the pack, shall we say, it may not be the best place for that fish to spawn,” he said. “It’s not really the kind of stream that’s good for supporting Chinook salmon; they’re really a ‘big river’ fish.”

On the bright side, the presence of a Chinook salmon apparently showing approval of Codornices Creek as a breeding ground is a good sign.

“The fact that a Chinook salmon would enter the creek does tend to indicate that the habitat might be suitable for steelhead. It’s a similar species with similar habitat requirements,” Hagar said. (He said rainbow trout, which are the same species as steelhead but do not venture into the ocean, along with three-spined stickleback, are the most prolific fish in the creek.)

As part of Hagar’s work with Restoration Design Group, numerous features were included in the restoration project to make the area more attractive to steelhead. These include specific plantings along the stream, boulder weirs to provide habitat, and structures to help in the formation of pools and provide cover.

He likened the creek restoration process — which has at times involved the complete transfer of the creek into piping during construction, removal of existing vegetation, removal of all fish, and other similarly extensive changes — to recovery from surgery.

“It takes a little while to repair itself, but when it does recover, the idea is that it will be in better shape than it was beforehand,” said Hagar. “I was out there earlier this year and did see trout in the creek already. It is providing habitat now, and it definitely should improve over the next few years as the creek adjusts.”

If all goes as planned, the restoration may ultimately result in steelhead breeding successfully in the creek.

Said Stromberg: “The day it gets proven actually to have spawning steelhead… that will be a pretty big day. We have to wait and be patient.”

Visitors to the area have already noted many changes, along with a variety of species making the area their home, even in the most recent phase of the design work, which took place from Sixth to Eighth streets in 2010-11.

This section of Codornices Creek, at Sixth Street in Berkeley, was restored in 2010-11. Photo: Neil Mishalov

Allen Fish, an ornithologist who paid a visit to the most recently restored stretch in April noted “a small explosion of bird action” upon getting out of the car with his wife and two children. In no more than 10 minutes, they noted 13 species, most of which were non-urban birds.

In a letter to Restoration Design Group, Fish called the project “incredibly successful,” noting that the stream bed, the native shrubs and the spacing of plants “made for an excellent replication of a native Bay region riparian zone — and clearly the birds knew it too.”

It’s the kind of feedback, along with sightings like the one of the Chinook this week, that make all the difference, said Stromberg.

“It gets us energized,” he said. “It reminds you of everything everyone is doing, that it makes a big difference. That’s one of the benefits of doing urban restoration. There’s a civic nexus of how people use the cities, and how fish and habitat use the cities. You get to play with the nexus, how legible the landscape is, all those things. That’s definitely kind of a driver for us.”

The restoration process has been a joint project undertaken by the cities of Berkeley and Albany, along with the University of California, said Stromberg. Community volunteers, including Richard Register and groups like the Codornices Creek Watershed Council and Friends of Five Creeks, also have been closely involved in many improvement efforts involving the creek.

Another shot from earlier this week of the large fish spotted in Codornices Creek. Photo: Drew Goetting

Susan Schwartz of Berkeley, who runs Friends of Five Creeks, said she’d heard about this week’s fish-spotting, and was excited to learn Wednesday that it appeared to be a Chinook. She said there had never been a report of a Chinook before in Codornices.

Schwartz organizes extensive creek work for volunteer groups, and encouraged visitors to Codornices to stay on the path and be careful not to disturb the wildlife. (Said Stromberg: “If you go to see this fish, please be mindful and be sure to not harass it.”) Schwartz said those truly interested in watching the spawning process unfold can connect with the Salmon Protection And Watershed Network in Marin County to see it up close.

She called the local discovery of a Chinook “very exciting.”

“The numbers of these fish are minuscule, compared to what they were before European settlers came,” she said. “Their survival in the Bay is in question, especially with global warming. They’re strong fish. Any sign of them is good. And, on another level, to realize that these huge fish have, from time immemorial, fought their way up these tiny streams to spawn and die is awe-inspiring.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...