Two Chinook salmon swimming in Glen Echo Creek. Credit: Katie Noonan

In December, Chinook salmon were spotted swimming in Lake Merritt near the channel that connects the lagoon to the bay. Longtime lake stewards and naturalists were excited about the fish, among thousands drawn by heavy winter rains, migrating from the Pacific Ocean to East Bay rivers and streams in an attempt to spawn. 

Oakland residents reported another incredible sight this past week: more salmon, this time attempting to swim up Glen Echo Creek, a small waterway that begins in the Oakland hills around Mountain View Cemetery and empties into the northwest branch of Lake Merritt near the Grand Avenue and Harrison Street intersection.

On Friday, Mike Barnes, a longtime resident and recreational fisherman spotted a pair of fish in Glen Echo where the creek runs alongside the Veterans Memorial Building. “I stood there for a while and kind of watched them,” said Barnes, who passes by the creek every day on his way to work. “I’m a fish dork, so I got excited about it,” he said. 

Barnes took a video of the salmon and showed it to some people living in the encampment next to the creek, as well as Lake Merritt Institute volunteers who were picking up trash nearby. “They didn’t believe me at first, but I showed them the video and they were all like, ‘Oh wow, there are salmon!’” 

Katie Noonan, co-chair of the citizens group Rotary Nature Center Friends, which works to protect Lake Merritt Wildlife, also spotted salmon attempting to spawn in Glen Echo Creek this past Sunday and filmed the fish. “I think what is so stunning about them coming in is that these fish haven’t been spotted in the area for a while because we’ve had a long season of drought.”

A pair of salmon in Glen Echo Creek. Naturalists say the fish are a good sign, but that much more would need to be done to make Oakland’s creeks a place where they could successfully spawn. Courtesy of Katie Noonan

According to Noonan, newly hatched salmon fry will typically spend some time in their birth stream before they’ve grown big enough to make the long journey to the pacific ocean. “It’s highly unlikely that will happen in Oakland simply because we’ve done so much to our local creeks; we’ve culverted them and we’ve polluted them,” Noonan said. 

Culverts often disrupt migratory fish and make it harder for fish to reach spawning grounds. Most of Oakland’s creeks have been forced into concrete channels and into culverts, including much of Glen Echo Creek, which runs just a couple hundred feet before entering a tunnel under Harrison Street.

Salmon sightings in Glen Echo Creek highlight the much-needed care that goes into conserving Lake Merritt’s amazing but fragile ecosystem, said James Robinson, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute. The non-profit organization partners with volunteer groups and Oakland schools to clean up Lake Merritt’s shoreline and creeks on a weekly basis. The institute also recommends keeping the tidal gates connecting the lake to the bay open whenever possible because the inflows of saltwater allow all sorts of wildlife to travel from the Bay into the lake and its tributaries.

“When I first heard the news, my brain lit up like the Fourth of July, because you do all of this work with the hopes that you’re making a difference, so it’s very refreshing,” Robinson said. “It lets us know that what we’re doing is working, and that there’s still work to be done; it’s not time to sit back in a recliner and hang our feet up.” 

When The Oaklandside visited Glen Echo Tuesday morning we did not spot any live salmon, but we did see a dead Chinook resting on the bottom of the channel in water that looked stagnant. With little or no rain in the forecast for the next week, it’s unlikely there will be new freshwater flows that could sustain more fish, or lead to a successful spawning somewhere upstream.

Noonan said that she has recovered the body of the fish that died and that she and others will study it to learn more about what the fish might have been eating, whether it was a hatchery or wild-born fish, possibly where it traveled in its life, and more.

A Chinook salmon carcass resting on the bottom of Glen Echo Creek on January 11, 2022. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Robinson noted that Glen Echo is heavily impacted by pollution and that salmon need to find freshwater streams with gravel beds in order to make a “redd,” or nest where eggs can survive predators and hatch into fry.

“The salmon would have to make it upstream to Oak Glen Park above the tides,” he said, referring to the stretch where Glen Echo Creek daylights and runs parallel to Richmond Boulevard for several blocks before being forced back into a tunnel.

Still, the return of salmon this year has many people excited for the future, especially if efforts to keep Lake Merritt clean and healthy are maintained.

“Nature has a way of surviving under the worst of conditions,” Mike Barnes said, “so it’s a combination of the salmon being one of the toughest fish on earth, along with this small group of people that are committed to making sure these fish and other species like it are around for my kids and my grandkids to see.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.