California drought could push species to extinction

DAVENPORT, Calif. -- Along the California coast, coho salmon that swim upstream to lay their eggs could not have better friends than wildlife biologists Charlotte and Jon Ambrose.

The married couple has spent years working to keep salmon from going extinct in California. Overfishing and habitat destruction pushed the coho to the brink. But now the state's severe drought is the final threat.

Jon Ambrose
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 "The population is so low now that when these natural events happen, that could be what tips them over the edge into extinction," said Jon Ambrose.

"We should be seeing nests of eggs here in the gravel," said Charlotte Ambrose.

 A nearly dry creek has been an essential part of the struggle to save the salmon. 

"Scott Creek is what we call our ground zero," said Jon.

The creek runs beside a hatchery that raises and releases about 40,000 fish each year. Even in a good year, only about 400 of those -- just 1 percent -- survive to return to lay their eggs.

"If you look at all these rocky outcropping, the fish has to swim over each and every one of those," Jon said.

There is so little water this year that the creek stops before reaching the ocean.
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 Obstacles begin miles away at the ocean, where what should be a rushing river meets the sea. "We should be seeing fish coming in and fish going out," said Jon sadly.

Instead, there is so little water this year that the creek stops before reaching the ocean.  Salmon trying to return to the creek to lay their eggs have nowhere to go.

"The situation is dire. The drought makes it more dire, but it is not hopeless," said Charlotte.

What hope there is comes from the hatchery that each year keeps some salmon to harvest their eggs.  That precious supply protected behind the locked door of an incubator provides one more chance to keep the species alive.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.