Spawning salmon face gauntlet of drought, aquatic invasive species

Ashleigh Goodwin /
Salmon spawning in Taylor Creek. The kokanee is the landlocked version of the sockeye salmon.
Provided/Getty Images

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Taylor Creek has recently been referred to as a parking lot by local fishing guide JD Richey in a recent Facebook post.

On Oct. 2, Richey posted a video on Oct. 2 showing social media followers the aquatic invasive species project, the low levels of the creek and the “brutal gauntlet” the kokanee salmon face this spawning season.

“This area has one of the highest concentrations of invasive species anywhere around the lake. Eurasian watermilfoil is the major plant species being released into the lake from these creeks,” according to the Tahoe Fund’s website. 

This project is part of a larger effort by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit to restore one of the last natural wetlands in the basin. Tahoe Fund provided $100,000 to the project and hosts a video on their website explaining the extensive and collaborative effort that has been enacted to remove 17 acres of invasive plants in Taylor and Tallac creeks.

Richey states in the video he understands why the AIS project is occurring but says, “it’s not doing any favors for our huge amount of kokanee salmon we have out in the lake right now.”

“Taylor and Tallac creek are some of the last remaining natural wetlands we have remaining in Lake Tahoe,” the video begins with Aquatic Biologist Sarah Muskopf of the US Forest Service. She continued, “These wetland systems provide not only habitat for native species of Lake Tahoe but are also important for filtering the water and helping clean water enter Tahoe.”

If left untreated, the infestation in the Taylor/Tallac wetlands would continue to degrade habitat for species that many people appreciate (native and non-native) and would continue to degrade the recreational opportunities and visual characteristics. 

Muskopf also says upon completion this will be the largest removal effort in the basin and the first in a wetland environment. 

A school of Kokanee Salmon (a type of Sockeye salmon) swimming upstream to spawn. These fish are in a creek that feeds into Lake Tahoe.
Getty Images

Dennis Zabaglo, TRPA aquatic resources program manager, describes the most effective way of mitigating the threat of the AIS is to smother them. 

“Benthic bottom barriers (black plastic) have been successfully used in Lake Tahoe and many other locations as a proven way to remove Eurasian watermilfoil, the target invasive weed for this project. The barriers basically prevent sunlight from reaching the plants so the plants cannot photosynthesize and eventually die,” Muskopf told the Tribune these barriers are projected to stay in place until 2023. 

Out of the last 3-year drought period this is the driest on record. The drought introduces additional challenges for the upstream dam at Fallen Leaf to be managed by the Forest Service. 

Muskopf said “in drought years, this can be a challenge. California’s rivers, streams, and creeks including those in the Lake Tahoe Basin, are experiencing significant low water flows and some have even dried up.”

When asked about the kokanee salmon and the struggle they face, Muskopf told the Tribune, “The Forest Service is working toward managing Taylor Creek to mimic more natural conditions.”

By mimicking the natural flow they hope to help establish a more natural streamflow and intend to delay spawning activities until later in the fall in anticipation of much needed rain and snowfall this winter.

Muskopf continued, “These desirable non-native salmon are resilient and can successfully spawn as late as February. When water flow in certain creeks and streams is low or non-existent, the fish seek out other tributaries to spawn in and have even been known to spawn along the shoreline of Lake Tahoe.” 

While Taylor Creek is a spawning site, the kokanee have been spawning in the Upper Truckee River, Incline, and Third creeks on the North Shore.

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