A peek at one part of what is causing California’s salmon collapse…
(NOTE: I’m getting hit up with lots of questions this year about the smolt acclimation project that’s happening in the Sacramento River basin this spring, so I thought I’d repost this to give you some inside info).
You have no doubt heard about how California and the Feds, in response to extreme drought conditions in the Central Valley, are going to truck and net pen rear 30 million Chinook salmon smolt this spring. The first loads of small salmon were delivered to Rio Vista and released into the Sacramento River on Monday, March 24 and the project will continue into May.
I’m a huge supporter of this and figured I’d give you a little background…
Out-migrating hatchery Chinook salmon smolt from California’s Central Valley rivers have to navigate a seemingly impossible list of hazards that include massive water diversions, predators at every turn, poor water quality and temperatures that are often 70 degrees and higher. In a low water year like this, the trip is exponentially more lethal.
To help increase the odds of the little salmon’s survival, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife has been engaged in trucking the fish to locations in the lower Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and upper San Francisco Bay for decades. The ride down Interstates 5 and 80 from the hatcheries on the Feather, Mokelumne and American rivers has given the fish a fighting chance but the feds, who operate Coleman National Fish Hatchery on the Sacramento River, have been more concerned with straying than salmon survival and have not participated. This year, however, the Golden Gate Salmon Association presented compelling evidence that the loss of salmon dumped directly into the river would be catastrophic and the feds finally agreed.
But simply trucking the salmon doesn’t ensure their survival — dumping the smolt directly into the water (like planted trout) made it so that predators like striped bass, sea lions, terns, seagulls, cormorants, etc. had plenty of food to eat. It was pure carnage at the release sites as the dazed fish suffered heavy losses immediately after leaving the trucks.
Fishery Foundation of California, which 20 years ago saw a better way…
According to the Foundation’s Executive Director, Trevor Kennedy, the FFC funded the area’s first net pen acclimation pilot study. They found that the net pens worked…big time. In fact, surveys showed that survival rates to the ocean for Chinook acclimated in the pens were 400% higher than those simply dumped straight into the river.
Think about that for a second…four hundred percent better survival! When you’re talking about that kind of improved survival for the tens of millions of fish released, you can see what a profound impact such a simple project can have!
After that, the project got the green light to go full bore and the numbers are impressive. The amount of fish that are released via the net pens varies annually, but Kennedy says that his outfit typically does 60 to 70 percent of the State’s Chinook…and are doing all of them in 2014!
Initially, the funding came from mitigation money from the water contractors for the zillions of smolt they sucked up in their pumps. Then, money for the project came from the Commercial Salmon Trollers. Kennedy said that for the past 6 years, the funding has come from Bay-Delta Fishery Enhancement Stamp. Unfortunately, future sources for this program are unclear…but it obviously needs to be continued!
The downside is the DFW and Feds would prefer to release fish in the river instead. They have this huge concern about salmon straying into the “wrong” systems. But, come on folks…in the Central Valley, which has been so altered by man, there’s nothing natural left. In this day and age, a live salmon in a river is a good salmon…regardless of origin.
Ordinarily, Coleman National Fish Hatchery releases its fish each year into the upper Sacramento River near Redding. From there the baby salmon migrate hundreds of miles downstream to the Delta and, under favorable conditions, on to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.
After being presented with overwhelming evidence by the Golden Gate Salmon Association, USFWS has agreed to transport most, if not all, of its 12 million Coleman Hatchery juvenile salmon the bay or western delta unless expected drought conditions change markedly for the better. Click here to read more…
The planned release follows releases of almost 750,000 baby salmon over the last five weeks — ignoring warnings from salmon advocates the fish are unlikely to survive.
Federal officials overseeing the controversial releases admit conditions are very bad for salmon but insist on releasing the fish at the hatchery anyway.
On January 6th the Golden Gate Salmon Association warned the agency that because of extreme drought conditions, release of the fish at the hatchery would likely kill many of the hatchery fish and wild baby salmon trapped in the upper Sacramento River.
GGSA asked that the fish be moved to safe waters for release. The request was turned down by the Fish and Wildlife Service even though recent studies show salmon released from Coleman hatchery in similar low water conditions had very low survival.
John McManus, executive director of GGSA said, “The Fish and Wildlife Service says they won’t move the fish to safe release sites because they fear the fish will fail to imprint and find their way home two years from now. But there aren’t likely to be any fish two years from now under the hatchery’s current practices.”
While driving up I-5 last week, I saw a couple big flocks of pelicans over the Sacramento River.
Normally we only see these birds in the Valley in the spring when the shad run is on. Obviously, the fish eaters have already locked into the salmon in the low water and are probably gulping them by the thousands.