Photo of the Sacramento River near Rio Vista by Dan Bacher.
Sacramento River salmon trucking program begins
by Dan Bacher
Federal and state officials and fishing group representatives yesterday greeted the beginning of a trucking program designed to transport Sacramento River juvenile salmon from a federal fish hatchery in Anderson, California to the Delta in order to improve their chances of survival in drought conditions.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coleman National Fish Hatchery began transporting fall Chinook salmon smolts (juveniles) from the hatchery to a release site on the Sacramento near Rio Vista on the morning of Tuesday, March 25, carrying out details of a special drought contingency plan announced by federal and state agencies earlier this month.
The Sacramento River is the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries. California’s salmon industry is currently valued at $1.4 billion in economic activity annually and about half that much in economic activity again in Oregon. The industry employs tens of thousands of people from Santa Barbara to northern Oregon.
The event marked the start of a more than two-month drought-response effort by federal and state hatcheries to transport roughly 30.4 million Chinook salmon to downriver locations to improve the fish’s chances for survival during their migration to the ocean.
The Chinook smolts, 3 inches in length, have been raised at the Coleman hatchery as part of the federal hatchery’s role in partially mitigating for Shasta and Keswick dams on the upper Sacramento River, according to a news release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Coleman NFH transported the Chinook salmon smolts from the hatchery over approximately 180 miles to a site on the lower Sacramento River near Rio Vista, the first time that site has been used.
“This is the first time USFWS has trucked smolts from Coleman since 2011. While it’s a 180-mile trip for the trucks, the salmon will have their typical migration from the hatchery to the ocean shortened by 260 to 300 river miles,” according to Steve Martarano, Public Affairs Specialist, Bay-Delta Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The smolts were placed in net pens operated by the Fishery Foundation of California, a non-profit organization, for acclimatization and then released.
Martarano said Coleman NFH smolts are typically released on-site into Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, so that they complete the imprinting cycle during their outmigration to the ocean.
“A continuing severe drought in the Central Valley of California, however, has produced conditions in the Sacramento River and Delta detrimental to the survival of juvenile salmon,” said Martarano. “To avoid unacceptably high levels of juvenile fish mortality that may result in 2014, this one-time release strategy should produce substantial increases in ocean harvest opportunity.”
The operation will be one of coordination and collaboration between the USFWS, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Fishery Foundation of California.
If triggers are met in the coming months and all 12 million salmon are trucked from Coleman, the effort will take 22 non-consecutive days, using between four and seven USFWS and CDFW trucks each day, noted Martarano. Each truck holds up to 2,800 gallons of water and each can carry up to 130,000 smolts at water temperatures between 55-60 degrees.
In addition to Coleman NFH, an estimated 18.4 million salmon smolts are scheduled to be transported until early June to San Pablo Bay from four state hatcheries operated by the CDFW: Feather River Hatchery in Oroville, Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery in Clements, Nimbus Hatchery in Gold River, and Merced River Fish Hatchery in Snelling.
If USFWS continues trucking into April and May, the San Pablo Bay site will also be used for Coleman hatchery releases.
However, Martarano also said this release strategy “increases the levels of straying.”
“Salmon tend to return to the point of release when planted from the hatchery to a river, and this release strategy is likely to compromise some of the hatchery objectives, including contributions to harvest in the upper Sacramento River and the ability to collect adequate broodstock at the Coleman NFH in future years – particularly 2016,” Martarano explained. “This one-time strategy, however, represents the best possible option when faced with the possibility of losing the entire 2013 production year.”
“In future years, under less extreme conditions, the standard protocol for releasing Chinook from the Coleman NFH will continue to be on-site releases into Battle Creek,” he concluded.
Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) representatives were on hand to greet the arrival of tanker trucks bringing millions of juvenile salmon to the Delta.
“The fish are being trucked from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery, located hundreds of miles up the Sacramento River, because drought conditions have made the river virtually impassable to baby salmon,” according to a GGSA news release. “The trucks are carrying them around the deadly drought zone to safe release sites in the Delta and bay. After a short acclimation period, the fish are being released to migrate to the ocean. In 2016 they’ll be adults contributing to the ocean and inland fisheries.”
GGSA chairman Roger Thomas emphasized, “Our 2016 fishing season may be riding on the survival of the fish in these trucks. We know that fish trucked around dangers lurking in the rivers and Delta survive at much higher rates than those released at the hatcheries. They are being trucked this year because they’d likely die in the low, clear, hot river conditions created by drought.”
Coleman hatchery raises approximately 12 million baby fall run salmon annually to help mitigate for the destruction of habitat by Shasta Dam and federal water operations in the Upper Sacramento River. Before the construction of Shasta and other dams, millions of salmon once migrated into the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers and their tributaries to spawn.
“GGSA worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to move and save these salmon,” said GGSA executive director John McManus. “What this means is we’ll likely have a much better salmon fishing season in 2016, when these fish reach adulthood, than we would have otherwise gotten. This could mean the difference between a shutdown of the fishery in 2016 and a decent year.”
McManus said California’s state-operated hatcheries truck much of their production annually for release in the Delta or Bay and this year the state took a leading role to truck even more due to the drought. State and federally raised hatchery fish could make up much of 2016’s adult salmon harvest and spawning adults.
With no significant rain in sight, trucking the rest of the Coleman baby salmon is expected to continue through June, according to McManus.
“Although transporting the baby salmon in tanker trucks and releasing them into the bay or western Delta will greatly increase their chances of survival, it’s not our preferred option,” said GGSA treasurer Victor Gonella. “We’d all rather see a functioning, healthy river and Delta that support natural and hatchery salmon.”
Baby salmon this year face the added risk of being pulled to their deaths through the Delta Cross Channel, a manmade canal built to divert water to huge pumps that send it to corporate agribusiness interests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Normally the Cross Channel Gates would be closed at this time of year to allow salmon passage. However, they are now being opened to dilute salt water accumulation in the interior Delta caused by the drought.
“In addition, pumping of Delta water south in recent weeks was increased even as wildlife managers warned water agencies that many wild federally protected winter and spring run baby salmon were threatened by the pumping. Low numbers of winter run Chinooks could adversely affect the 2016 fishing season,” added Gonella.
The winter-run chinook, a robust fish that formerly migrated into the McCloud River before Shasta Dam was built, is listed as “endangered” under both state and federal law.
GGSA secretary Dick Pool, said, “The Fish and Wildlife Service developed criteria for this year dictating when it should transport salmon rather than release them into hostile drought conditions. We think hatchery fish should be trucked in the future whenever these criteria are triggered by low water conditions.
“As more and more fresh water is extracted from the Sacramento River and Delta for delivery to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness, the salmon’s migration corridor downstream and through the Bay-Delta estuary has become a deadly gauntlet,” said GGSA vice chairman Zeke Grader who is also the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Add drought, and the Central Valley rivers and Delta become virtually impassable for salmon.”
GGSA was joined by member fishing groups in working to get the Coleman fish trucked. Members of Congress, including Representatives Jared Huffman, Mike Thompson, John Garamendi, Anna Eshoo, Jackie Speier, George Miller and Mike Honda, also supported the efforts.
However, Bill Jennings, the Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said his organization was concerned that the salmon were released at Rio Vista, where the majority of larval Delta and longfin smelt can be found now, when they could have been released further downriver at Pittsburg or Benicia. The larval smelt are highly vulnerable to predation by the newly-released salmon.
“We urged state and federal officials to both transport hatchery stocks and, wherever possible, to capture some of the wild fish at rotary screw fish traps and weirs for transport downriver because those are the salmon that will be completely hammered this year, especially spring and winter run chinooks,” said Jennings. “Second, we urged agency officials to release the fish 10 miles downriver at Pitsburg to get beyond where the Delta smelt are. In fact, they could have gone all way down to Benicia.”
Jennings pointed out the dire situation that Delta smelt, a state and federal endangered species, and longfin smelt, a state threatened species, are in now.
“The state and federal governments last year hammmered Delta and longfin smelt when they violated water quality standards and reduced Delta outflows last year,” said Jennings. “The CDFW fall midwater trawl survey revealed that Delta smelt reached their second lowest population level last year – and they’re getting hit hard again this year.”
“We didn’t need millions upon millions of hungry salmon dropped on top of smelt in the Rio Vista area, the epicenter of Delta and longfin smelt now. We know from CDFW studies that salmon eat larval Delta smelt. We also urged barging fish downriver so the salmon could acclimate,” emphasized Jennings.
It must be also noted that the drought conditions were greatly exacerbated by poor management of northern California reservoirs and rivers by the state and federal water agencies throughout 2013, a record drought year. The water managers systematically drained Shasta, Oroville, Folsom and other reservoirs last year to ship water to corporate agribusiness interests, oil companies and Southern California water agencies.
The draining of the reservoirs in 2013 spurred Restore the Delta, at a Congressional field hearing in Fresno last week, to call for drought relief for Delta farming and fishing communities and for a Congressional investigation of the mismanagement of water resources in California.
“Unfortunately, at the Hearing on Immediate and Long-Term Relief for Drought-Impacted San Joaquin Valley, no discussion is focused on the needs of Delta farming and fishing communities, coastal fishing communities, or the health of the SF Bay-Delta estuary,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta. “No discussion is intended to focus on gross mismanagement by the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation that has helped bring us to the precipice during this water crisis.”
“There is no focus on how upstream reservoirs at the beginning of 2013 were over 100% of historical average storage, and how by the beginning of 2014 they were at dangerously low levels,” she stated. “This Committee should investigate how the State has promised 5 times more in water rights than there is water available in the system during years of average rainfall. This Committee should investigate how water officials have failed to plan for drought management, even though droughts occur 40% of the time in California.”
Barrigan-Parrilla also urged the Committee to examine how, even in 2013, the Westlands Water District continued to plant almond trees, bringing their total almond acreage to 79,000 acres, despite knowing they are only guaranteed surplus water in the system.
You can read my investigative piece on the mismanagement of Central Valley reservoirs and rivers in 2013 here:http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/02/07/1275862/-The-Emptying-of-Northern-California-Reservoirs
Meanwhile, the Brown and Obama administrations are fast-tracking a twin tunnel plan that will make prospects for salmon survival even worse than they are now. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build the peripheral tunnels will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.
The so-called “habitat restoration” proposed under the widely-opposed plan will take vast tracts of Delta farmland, some of the most fertile soil on the planet, out of agricultural production in order to continue irrigating mega-farms located on toxic, drainage-impaired land on the west side of the Joaquin Valley. The water destined for the proposed tunnels will also be used by the oil industry for steam injection and fracking operations to extract oil from Monterey Shale deposits in Kern County.
For more information, check out the following:
• Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA): http://goldengatesalmonassociation.com
• Restore the Delta: http://www.restorethedelta.org
• Media Advisory regarding March 25 media events:
• Map of State/Federal Hatcheries and release sites:
• The USFWS Contingency Plan released March 10:
• The CDFW Contingency Plan released March 10:
http://www.fws.gov/sfbaydelta/documents/CDFW-Spring-Run-Drought-Contingency-Plan.pdf Federal Hatchery Salmon Avoid Drought, Get Ride to Delta
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