The first time Alex Johanson saw a fish, he thought to himself, there are aliens on earth. His second thought was how cool that was, and how interested he was in learning more about these mysterious underwater creatures. His life’s interweaving with California fish snowballed from there.
As a Marin County native, Alex Johanson has the self-proclaimed opportunity of a lifetime: researching salmonid fisheries in his backyard. This fall, Johanson began his graduate coursework in Ecology at UC Davis as a CalTrout Graduate Fellow. Through the fellowship, he will be contributing to a full life cycle monitoring study of salmonids in Walker Creek which will help CalTrout and other agencies fill a critical data gap for coho salmon in the larger Tomales Bay watershed. This research will help inform ongoing management of coho salmon and lay the groundwork for future restoration work.
CalTrout’s Communications Team was lucky enough to spend some time talking with Alex Johanson about his Fellowship and the journey that led him to where he is today.
When I say I'm a Marin County native, I legitimately mean that. I was born in Marin General Hospital, and I grew up in San Anselmo, surrounded by the mountain lakes of Fairfax. Growing up there, I spent all of my time outside, much of it in the large open space preserve behind my house.
I really started getting into fish when I was about five years old. My family would go camping with our neighbors every summer, and my dad and our neighbor would always bring their fly rods. I remember the first time I saw my dad catch a fish, I thought to myself “there are aliens on earth, underwater.” I didn’t understand what a fish was at that point, but I knew it was cool and I needed to learn more about it. When I was about 11, I started going on backpacking trips with my dad, and I realized how much I really loved nature and needed to be outside. And then in fifth grade, I went to a week-long field trip camp at Walker Creek Ranch. Being out in nature for a week, that was the first time I realized I could actually have a career in natural resources management. I could get paid to be outside!
It kept going from there. In eighth grade, I took my first biology focused science course, and I was actually good at science for the first time ever – I had taken Physics the year before and let’s just say it did not go well at all. I scored a 99% on the test in the Marine Biology unit, and things were looking good! In high school that continued, and by the time I was ready to apply for college I was only looking at schools that had biology programs with a water focus. I toured the University of Washington campus, saw a fisheries major on their list, and, needless to say, I ended up there, earning my degree in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. Even before I started my college courses, I was already fascinated with salmon. Diving deeper into how salmon start in freshwater and then go to the ocean and come back was the coolest thing to me. They must undergo this whole physiological change to exist in separate environments, and no other species we learned about captivated me as much as salmon did.
After graduation, my first job was back home in Marin County at the Marin Municipal Water District with their Fisheries Division. It was an eight-week position doing electrofishing in Lagunitas Creek. After that, my next step was to get back in Lagunitas Creek with Marin Water for another year with the Watershed Stewards Program, an AmeriCorps program that trains people to perform fisheries based research. I spent the whole year doing life cycle monitoring for coho and steelhead, and I knew that I was heading in the right direction. I did a second term with the Watershed Stewards Program down in Santa Cruz and Moss Landing learning about how agriculture influences stream health, which helped me start thinking about salmon’s role at the ecosystem level.
In 2020, CalTrout Bay Area Region Director Patrick Samuel reached out to me because there was a need for salmonid research and monitoring on Walker Creek. The story that seems to keep happening around Marin County salmon is that everybody’s interested, everybody wants to do the research, but nobody has the time. I had the time. Today, after two years of doing research in Walker Creek as a contractor with CalTrout, we were able to turn that into the basis of my Masters thesis at UC Davis. As a graduate student, I get to continue pursuing that research, full time, in an educational research setting.
I went on a week-long trip there in fifth grade, and I see that as the start of my career. At Walker Creek, I realized I could get paid to be in a creek, and I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do with my time.
At the camp, we hiked all over the watershed. At one point, we were walking down a hill and it started to rain. I fell so hard and slid all the way down the hill, getting completely caked in mud. Everyone was laughing, but I was living the dream. We went over to Turtle Pond another day, and I really wanted to swim, but the leader told us we couldn’t because the water was too cold. After a ton of begging, he did let us dunk our heads in though, and in the process of leaning over the dock to dunk my head, my friend who was supposed to be holding my legs let go. I was the only kid from our school who got to go swimming!
After that camp, I remember thinking: people get to do this every day. This is the dream. That trip really did shape the entire trajectory of my career. I cannot believe I'm fortunate enough to be back in Walker Creek today, in my hometown, doing research on a place that kickstarted all of it for me.
CalTrout has been on my radar since 2016, when I was a junior in undergrad thinking about my future. After college, I knew I wanted to be working in the field and I knew I wanted to be working with salmon. I started researching opportunities at different agencies. When I looked at CalTrout and the work the organization was doing it pretty much exactly aligned with what I wanted my career to be focused on.
CalTrout’s initiative, Integrate Wild Fish and Working Lands, especially drew me in because that’s exactly what we are doing at Walker Creek. I grew up eating delicious cheese from all of the dairy farms in Marin, and I recognize that the people who work the land have been there much longer than I have. Some of these ranches have been in families’ hands for over 300 years. If we want to do anything productive in our watersheds, we have to work together with these landowners.
By the sheer grace of God, I met CalTrout Bay Area Region Director Patrick Samuel in 2017 at a one-day electrofishing event in Walker Creek. He remembered me three years later when a position as a contractor for CalTrout opened up, and he introduced me to Dr. Rob Lusardi who is my Principal Investigator today at UC Davis.
It is clear to me that the work everyone at CalTrout is doing is part of a collaborative effort across the entire organization to get things done for the betterment of our environment. I can't understate how cool that is to me and how excited I am to be involved in that.
My research will be taking place in Walker Creek which is part of the Tomales Bay watershed. Walker Creek is directly north of Lagunitas Creek, and the two watersheds have the same recovery target for coho salmon: they both want to see 2600 adults or 1300 redds in stream in the winter to de-list the fish species as endangered. In Lagunitas Creek, they are nowhere close to reaching that target, but they know that because of a very comprehensive monitoring program. We have no idea what is going on in Walker Creek because no one has had the time or bandwidth to look at it in detail over time. That data gap was the impetus for this migration study where we are attempting to determine what is happening in Walker Creek in the very limited amount of area we have access to survey. That access is expanding, however, as time goes on.
We currently have three PIT antennas in Walker Creek at downstream, midstream, and upstream locations, thanks to landowners who have generously allowed us access to their land. By having those three antennas, we can release tagged hatchery adult coho and tag juveniles to see when and where they are moving. As they move upstream and downstream, we will be able to identify pockets of good habitat where fish are growing or rearing, as well as the timing of those big migration pulses. As we get more buy-in from adjacent properties, we can install further antennas and expand the geographical scope of our study site. The ultimate goal is to have someone in the creek year-round counting fish in an effort to replicate the 20-yearlong data set collected for Lagunitas Creek. If we can identify good habitat for fish in Walker Creek, we can plan restoration efforts for the rest of the creek to improve habitat throughout. Improved habitat would lead to higher returns of fish because there would be more space, less competition for resources, and cooler and better quality water.
Tomales Bay is the southernmost extent of wild coho salmon in North America, and protection of fish populations in this watershed is a high priority. Every coho population south of Marin County only persists because of hatcheries. If we can figure out what is going on in Walker Creek and we can combine that with what we know about Lagunitas Creek and Olema Creek, eventually we can piece together a bigger picture for the entire Tomales Bay watershed. We will be able to document fish moving between these watersheds as well, helping to reduce risk in the population and increase genetic diversity that is needed for recovery. Then we might have a chance of protecting these salmon from going extinct.
This research project is the first time I get to take the reins. I have extensive support from mentors at UC Davis and CalTrout, but the people around me also trust me to run the science myself. I still feel like I’m this goofy kid who loves fish, but I’m getting to really show my stuff as a scientist! Starting in November, I’m lucky enough to be responsible for walking almost 3,000 meters or 2 miles of the creek on my own, conducting weekly spawner surveys, and reporting out how the adult coho are doing. This year, we’re also lucky that CDFW will survey some of the downstream area and Marin Water may survey in Salmon Creek as we start to piece together spawning success throughout the watershed. This group effort is going to help us set a baseline for coho reproductive success in Walker. While this project is entirely collaborative, I also have a sense of ownership of it. I get to write the monthly updates and share our findings to all those who are deeply invested in the coho in Walker Creek, including the landowners who graciously allow access to their properties. I have had really good training, I know my stuff, and my mentors trust that I have the capability to do this work.
Grad school has only been going for three weeks and I have never been this happy. I really am living my dream! And while I’m so happy to be doing this migration study for my Masters, my ultimate goal is to look at coho migration in Tomales Bay itself, hopefully for my PhD!