News & Stories

  • Saving California‚Äôs salmon during a severe drought

    February 17, 2014

    By Peter Moyle, UC Davis

    California is in one of the most severe droughts in recent years. This means water agencies are under great pressure to sacrifice river flows meant to sustain fish and wildlife for increased water delivery to farms and cities. Here are some questions decision-makers should consider in the tradeoff.

    Why save native fish?

    The answer lies in a value judgment: how important is it to save species and ecosystems special to California?

    Today, 82 percent of California’s 122 native freshwater fishes are found only or mainly in this state. Without these uniquely Californian species, our streams and lakes would have the same carp, bass, sunfish and other homogenized fauna found in much of North America.

    Our California populations of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon are uniquely adapted for local conditions. If spring- and winter-run Chinook were to disappear from the Central Valley, we could not replace them with salmon from Alaska. They simply could not survive here.

    Even without drought, most of our native fishes are in trouble. More than 80 percent of them are headed for extinction by 2100 if present trends continue (Moyle et al. 2012). This includes most of our 32 kinds of native salmon and trout (Katz et al. 2013). Our federal and state endangered species laws essentially say it is the policy of the United States and California to not let species go extinct. The current drought will put this policy to a severe test.

    How capable are our native fish of surviving severe drought?

    Yes, California salmon and other native fishes have survived much worse droughts. Their evolution has been shaped by the state’s isolation and Mediterranean climate, which has meant persisting through extraordinarily long dry spells. The fishes have adaptations that reflect this history.

    Chinook salmon in the Central Valley, for example, have four runs that are each keyed to a different season and habitat but overlapping in both. Adults can return from the ocean at 2 to 6 years of age. Juveniles can head to sea at various ages — lingering in rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or making a beeline for the Pacific in a few days. They also can take refuge in the constant, cold flows of spring-fed streams or take advantage of ephemeral flows from rain and snowmelt.

    But water development has largely robbed the salmon of their ability to use this amazing adaptive resiliency.

    Dams have blocked more than 1,000 miles of critical cold-water refuges such as the snowmelt streams feeding the San Joaquin River and the spring-fed McCloud and upper Sacramento rivers near Mount Shasta. The impoundments were particularly devastating to winter- and spring-run Chinook, which depended on high elevation habitats.

    The Delta and channelized rivers are no longer suitable for young fish to linger and grow. They are now ecological traps full of alien predators.

    Commercial fishing takes the largest and oldest fish, reducing the ability of a population to outlive drought conditions. Meanwhile, hatcheries are simplifying life histories, changing behaviors and otherwise diluting wild stock. As a result, entire populations can become maladapted to natural conditions, inhibiting recovery (Katz and Moyle, 2012).

    What can we do to ensure native salmon persist through severe drought?

    Drastic times may require desperate measures such as these:

    • Emergency trucking: Fishery agencies may be hauling adult winter-run Chinook to the cooler McCloud River this winter if it appears that Shasta Reservoir will run out cold water in the summer. This would be a rescue measure of last resort as the odds are stacked against adult salmon surviving the transport, let alone spawning a brood for capture and return to the Sacramento River. Alternately, winter-run juveniles could be reared in the spring-fed Mount Shasta Trout Hatchery.
    • More policing: Stepping up warden patrols of key salmon streams such as Deer and Mill creeks in Tehama County to prevent poaching of spring- run Chinook and illegal water diversion of water such as for pot farms.
    • Fishing bans: Managing ocean salmon fisheries to allow more fish to grow to larger and older.
    • Spring relief: Finding ways to maximize cold-water flows from springs to benefit fish. For example, Shasta Valley farmers could be paid to reduce water use, resulting in less runoff of warm irrigation drainage into the cold, spring-fed Shasta River.
    • Triage panel: Convening a panel of state and federal fishery scientists with authority to decide which species are in greatest need of the “environmental flows” reserved for imperiled fishes. Should this water, say in Oroville and Shasta reservoirs, be released to benefit winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon or delta smelt?

    What should be done after the drought to recover salmon and salmon fisheries?

    We need to acknowledge that persistence of salmon depends on integrating them into human-dominated ecosystems. Protecting salmon and other native fishes for the future in reality requires a comprehensive strategy/program resembling the efforts once made to solve California’s water supply issues and resulted in our present, largely successful hydraulic system. Such a strategy might include:

    • Salmon sanctuaries: Stretches of rivers and streams or watersheds dedicated to salmon conservation. First proposed by Livingston Stone in 1872, in response to mining and logging destruction of California rivers, the idea has received wide acceptance as a reasonable conservation step – but little traction in California. One exception is Blue Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River. Thanks to the Western Rivers Conservancy, the Yurok Tribe is acquiring land along the creek to continue managing it as a salmon sanctuary. Other obvious candidates are: Shasta and Smith rivers and Battle, Deer and Mill creeks.
    • Reoperation of dams: Identifying how operators can economically manage the timing, volume and temperature of flows beneficial for salmon and other fish. Many of the more than 1,400 large dams on California rivers fall short of providing adequate flows for fish. California explicitly requires dam owners to release enough flow to keep fish “in good condition” (Fish and Game Code, Section 5937). Stricter rules apply on waterways important to threatened and endangered species.
    • Removal of dams: Sediment has filled the reservoirs of many small dams in California, making them useless. Accelerated and selective removal of dams below suitable habitat could significantly increase the likelihood of salmon and steelhead persistence. One prime candidate for removal is Matilija Dam on the Ventura River.
    • Re-operation of fish hatcheries: They should be managed to favor wild salmon. Numerous studies have found that the planting hatchery salmonids has impaired the health and resilience of wild populations. Yet hatcheries in California continue to pursue the goal of both supporting commercial and sport fisheries and supporting recovery of wild populations. They generally fail at the latter, often damaging wild populations instead of helping them (Katz and Moyle, 2012). The dual mission results in publicly funded fish hatcheries undermining publicly funded wild fish recovery efforts, a problem exacerbated during drought.

    Such a strategy can work only if well funded. Saving our native fishes will require considerable water and effort from Californians. While this may seem too much to ask during a severe drought, California history shows that water crises are a great motivator (Lund, 2014). The timing for instigating a statewide fish conservation strategy couldn’t be better.

    Topics: blog, drought

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  • Salmon in the Middle - As conservation efforts begin bearing fruit, drought conditions threaten local fisheries

    February 13, 2014

    The schools of large adult Chinook salmon swimming back and forth in most pools of the lower Mattole River from November to mid-January offered a powerful testament to both the resilience of these remarkable fish and to the challenges they now face in light of climate change and California's pernicious drought.

    Many people still remember the dry years of the mid-1970s — especially 1976-77, the driest water year (July 1 through June 30) on record up to now. One bright warm day followed another that winter and the night skies were filled with stars. Loggers complained of having no work-stopping rainy days to give them a little winter's rest. Many smaller creeks and springs simply stopped running as the warm season progressed. Salmon returning in the fall were, like this year, stuck in the pools in lower rivers, increasingly vulnerable to poaching. The rainfall total that year, at 25 inches in the lower Mattole Valley, was then the lowest on record, lower than the dry year of 1929.

    Decades later, Humboldt County is coming off its driest December and January ever recorded. Nancy Dean, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Eureka, said this year's two-month total of 1.91 inches has replaced 1976-77 as the lowest combined total for the two months since the National Weather Service began keeping track. And that bleak measurement comes on the heels of last calendar year's anemic rainfall total of 16.6 inches in Eureka — a total that set a new single-year record, coming in more than 23 inches below normal. Stream flow in the Mattole River at its driest in January of 1977 was 89 cubic feet per second (cfs). Comparatively, on the same day in 2014, the flow was just below 54 cfs, a level far more common in late August. Before the rain began falling on Feb. 5, only 6.3 inches of precipitation had been recorded in the lower Mattole since July 1, about 12 percent of seasonal average.

    Statewide, the water content of the rapidly waning Sierra snowpack has fallen to 15 percent of normal, forcing officials to cut off water allocations from the State Water Project to local agencies that serve 25 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland throughout the state.

    Though the droughts of 1976-77 and 2013-14 are remarkably similar in terms of the timing and amounts of rainfall, changes have taken place since 1977 that affect local watersheds profoundly, making them both more vulnerable to droughts and more resistant to them. In 1977, fewer people inhabited the Humboldt countryside. At the same time, our once-bountiful salmon runs were in rapid decline, victims of over-fishing, habitat damage and two great floods.

    A migration of people out of cities and back to the land has combined with the marijuana boom to steadily increase populations in Humboldt's remote watersheds. Deleterious effects on the land, though, and an increased demand for water have been partly balanced by strong commitments to watershed restoration and sustainability on the parts of many newcomers and established ranch families alike.

    Thanks to improved freshwater habitat, fairly moist spring seasons and good offshore feeding conditions, the fish have started to respond. Even the great, dam-congested Columbia to the north had its strongest return this year — over 1 million spawners — since 1936.

    Locally, the Eel River Project estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 chinook returned to spawn in the river last year. "We had an absolutely banner year in 2012-13," said Patrick Higgins, a biologist working with the project. This year's numbers are below last year's, "but were still good," he said.

    Sara Bolock , an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, reports that over 320,000 chinook, the highest number since 1978, returned to spawn in the Klamath in 2012-13. Less than half that — about 140,000 — came back this year, according to Taz Soto, head of the Karuk Tribe fisheries program in the middle Klamath. "Fewer spawners showed up this year, but the run was still better than average," he said.

    The Smith River, too, had its banner year recently — in 2011-12 — according to Fish and Wildlife's Justin Garwood.

    These improved returns should be providing a sense of hope for the future of salmon. Unfortunately, the river systems they're returning to are wrung almost dry. Fry (very young salmon) hatched out low in the rivers miss the sheltered rearing habitats they normally encounter on their long migrations from headwaters. They'll be more vulnerable to hunger, predation and infestations common in over-warm lower rivers. There is also a danger that, if heavy rains break the drought, high flows could wash eggs or tiny fry out of the mobile gravels that are found in lower rivers.

    Reginald Kennedy, hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Eureka, points out that common culprits for extreme weather aren't around this year — no El Niño or La Niña. There is only this "tenacious high pressure ridge" locked firmly over the eastern Pacific from the tip of Baja to northern British Columbia, he said.

    Normally, Kennedy said, the high pressure off the coast during the warm months gives way in fall to the powerful low-pressure systems formed in the Gulf of Alaska. Instead, this winter — not unlike in 1976-77 — the low-pressure disturbances are being forced north, "over the top" of the continent and into Canada, where they literally gather cold. The frigid lows then move with a looping jet stream down into the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard, where they've been wreaking havoc. This year's deep freeze in the east is the other face of California's drought.

    Gordon Leppig is the newly designated climate change coordinator and long-range planner for Fish and Wildlife on the north coast. Leppig, an avowed optimist, said in a recent interview that, "while it's impossible to point to any one weather event such as the drought and say, 'It's climate change,' this event fits all the predicted patterns: more intense, faster-moving droughts; less snowpack; lower springs and stream flows; extreme danger from wildfire."

    Leppig's office is enjoined with the task of figuring how to reduce emissions in all areas of Fish and Wildlife resource management. At the same time, as a long-range planner in a drought-prone environment, he has to be concerned about land-use practices that impact water. He posed an old question for Californians, now newly urgent: "Is there enough water for agriculture, domestic use and for fish?"

    In other words, we are facing new challenges to the coexistence of people and salmon just at a time when salmon seem to be showing signs of recovery. Can we adapt to these realities? Can salmon? Leppig painted an ominous picture. "Current research shows that if present population trends continue," he said, "we should anticipate 78 percent of California's 32 distinct native salmonid populations will likely be extinct within the next century."

    While the rains that commenced earlier this month proved a welcome relief in our parched communities, Todd Flackus, a research analyst with the Department of Water Resources, said they do not impact California's drought status. "Even if we had above-average rainfall for the rest of February and March, we'd still be behind."

    Topics: drought

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  • Rain Helping Local Creeks, Endangered Fish Populations

    February 11, 2014

    By Jacqueline Tualla, KION News

    Many fish on the Central Coast haven't been able to migrate because it has been so dry. But the rainfall over the last several days has actually helped the steelhead trout and Coho salmon populations.

    Scott Creek near Davenport finally saw water flowing through its mouth Sunday morning. It was bare before the rain, two months behind schedule.

    "We're normally opened up in December, so fish for the first time now have had the opportunity to move upstream," said Joseph Kiernan, a research fisheries biologist for National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz.

    Every day, he and his crew track the steelhead and Coho salmon populations. Monday was the first time the creek level touched far above their ankles, where it had been.

    "These fish have been captured in the box here, so we're just taking them out and placing them in this temporary holding bin and then from here they're going to go on the length board," Kiernan said.

    Just today, they caught three of the first wild steelhead of the year making their way to spawn.

    After tagging the fish, the crew released them, so they can finally migrate.

    "The fact that we were able to catch three fish this morning suggests to me that probably a lot more came in because they could've also went over the main stem so that's hopefully good news," said Sean Hayes, research fisheries biologist for National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz.

    Even though the rain has helped the creeks significantly, it's still hard to tell how things could look a month from now if the Central Coast doesn't get more rain.

    The researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how many fish came through, but estimate between 10 to 30 came since Sunday night. They check the creek at least least once a day and often two to three times a day during high weather conditions to keep the trap maintained.

    The fish are tagged with chips as juveniles, so even if they got past the traps the researchers can still figure out if they returned. That could take a few days for them to figure out.

    Steelhead populations spawn from January all the way into April locally. Coho is a big concern in the short term with the drought. Their spawning season has a very short time window.

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  • Extreme drought threatens central California coast's coho salmon (+video)

    February 11, 2014

    By Gloria Goodale, The Christian Science Monitor

    California’s drought is making life hard for the state’s salmon population and may soon claim at least one entire species as victim.

    The California Coast coho salmon relies on the small creeks and streams flowing into the ocean along the coast for its life cycle. With most of these outlets depleted and with sandbars growing at the river mouths because of lack of runoff from the snow packs in the mountains to the east, the tiny hatchlings cannot get to the ocean nor can the adults make their way back upstream to spawn.

    Heavy rainfall over the weekend sent water coursing through many of these blocked river mouths, but wildlife officials say this is a drop in the bucket compared with the overall need.

    “Recent rain, while good, isn’t enough,” says Jordan Traverso, spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in an e-mail. According to the Department of Water Resources, she notes, “we would need it to rain heavily every other day through the end of May to reach average precipitation.”

    Many of the state’s salmon populations were already in trouble before the current drought conditions, says Ms. Traverso. The coho population had already plunged from some 56,000 in the 1960s to roughly 500 adults in 2009. The population now hovers in the low thousands, according to a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service, reported in the Los Angeles Times.

    Though monitoring data are still coming in, this year’s salmon cohort looks to be at-risk as well, says Traverso. “The drought is putting further stress on the situation,” she says.

    Still, planning efforts over the past decade have put important safeguards in place. Hatcheries have focused on bringing fish in from the wild into three facilities in the central coast.“We have a lot of staff monitoring conditions,” says Traverso, adding that hatcheries will have a role in rebuilding recreational fisheries adversely affected by the drought. They will also have a role in rebuilding at-risk fisheries.

    Aside from California's duty to protect salmon and steelhead for their intrinsic value to the people of the state, which includes traditional tribal uses, “salmon is a huge, multimillion-dollar industry" here, Traverso notes.

    The state has many choices about water management, says John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “We have tens of thousands of jobs hanging in the balance,” he says, depending on the decisions made about how to manage water in the state.

    “I don’t see this as human beings being pitted against fish,” he says, because this industry affects so many people’s livelihoods. In this state, everything from the large commercial interests to the local marinas and bait-and-tackle shops are impacted, he says.

    “This is really a balancing act between one set of human needs and another,” he adds.

    To protect the salmon industry from further depletion, wildlife officials last week closed all coastal streams from recreational fishing, leaving small shops such as Gualala Sport and Tackle high and dry. Barbara McDaniel, who has worked at the shop for the past two years, says sales have been way down. The store is just across the street from the mouth of the Gualala River, which was bursting at its banks over the weekend.

    "It was amazing,” says Ms. McDaniel, who says she watched as fast, dirty water from the heavy rains broke through the built-up sand berms at the mouth of the river.

    But the rivers will remain closed to recreational fishing, at least until April, she says.

    “We are getting a lot of calls,” she says, “and I have to tell them the river won’t open for fishing.”

    Topics: drought

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  • Thousands of steelhead die in marsh

    February 10, 2014

    By Clay Lambert, Half Moon Bay Review 

    The president of a South Coast conservation group says weekend rains brought tainted water into the Pescadero Marsh, killing thousands of steelhead trout and other species. Steve Simms says it is a predictable rite of winter and he’s extremely frustrated with the bureaucracy that allows it to happen year after year.

    The problem is that chemicals toxic to fish are stirred up by the same heavy rains that eventually open the mouth of the Butano Creek to the ocean. Fish essentially suffocate in the nutrient-rich water. It’s been happening almost regularly since 1998 and local residents have been pleading with myriad state officials to solve a problem that comes to a head on government land.

    “If this were a private landowner, he’d be in jail,” Simms said on Monday. Simms is president of the Coastal Alliance for Species Enhancement.

    Simms and others bagged about 100 dead steelhead over the weekend and he says other volunteers found 200 more. He suggested that is probably only 10 percent of the total die-off over the weekend.

    Almost a year ago, a panel of scientists met in Half Moon Bay to begin a systemic study of the ecological problems of the marsh. Simms said he is frustrated by the progress of that group.
    “They want to study it and study it and study it,” he said. “How many more years before the Butano population is gone?”

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