News & Stories

  • Nimbus Hatchery Fish Ladder to Open Nov. 4

    October 30, 2019

    California Fish and Wildlife News

    The salmon ladder at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Rancho Cordova will open Monday, Nov. 4, signaling the start of the spawning season on the American River. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) hatchery workers will open the gates in the ladder at 10:30 a.m. and will take more than a half-million eggs during the first week alone in an effort to ensure the successful spawning return of fall-run Chinook salmon.

    The three major state-run hatcheries in the Central Valley – Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Sacramento County, and hatcheries on the Feather River in Butte County and the Mokelumne River in San Joaquin County – will take approximately 24 million eggs over the next two months to produce Chinook salmon for release next spring.

    Each hatchery has a viewing area where visitors can watch the spawning process. The visitors’ center at Nimbus Hatchery includes a playground with replicas of giant salmon. Nimbus Hatchery is open to the public free of charge from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends. For more information about spawning schedules and educational opportunities at each hatchery, please visit the CDFW website at

    There are eight state-run salmon and steelhead hatcheries, all of which will participate in the salmon spawning effort. These spawning efforts were put in place over the past half century to offset fish losses caused by dams that block salmon from historic spawning habitat.

    Once the young salmon reach 2 to 4 inches in length, one-quarter of the stock will be marked and implanted with a coded wire tag prior to release. CDFW biologists use the information from the tags to chart their survival, catch and return rates.

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  • Documentary a call to action to preserve wild salmon/Tam Valley director’s ‘Artifishal’ takes on fish hatcheries and farms

    October 30, 2019

    Marin Independent Journa by Vicki Larson

    There are lots of pressing environmental issues to focus on, from water shortages to deforestation to climate change. Fish hatcheries and farms wouldn’t necessarily come immediately to mind.

    That’s a problem, says Josh “Bones” Murphy.

    “What we’ve done is totally industrialized this process of salmon, this icon of what it was to be wild,” the Tam Valley resident says. “When fish are farmed en masse, specifically in open net pens, there are real problems to the environment. All of the feces, all of the chemical treatments, all of the disease agents that the fish are infected with or can become infected with, all the parasites, can transfer from those farmed fish to the immediate environment. So rather than helping wild fish … it’s further degrading wild fish.”

    Which is why “Artifishal,” the documentary he co-wrote, produced and directed for Patagonia, is a call to action. It will air Nov. 5 on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

    For decades, humans have interrupted wild salmon’s journey from the rivers where they spawn to the oceans where they mature and then back to the rivers. By draining and damming rivers, overfishing streams, relying on hatcheries and farmed fish and releasing billions of genetically inferior salmon into the wild, we’ve destroyed their natural life cycle, he says. The wild salmon, the environment and people are all suffering because of it.

    The solution, Murphy says and the 80-minute film shows, is land-based fish farming with either freshwater or saltwater — a relatively new way of approaching the issue that would hold fish farmers more accountable and cause less harm to the environment. But it would cost those fish farmers more — floating a net in the ocean, as salmon are now farmed, is free. “Right now, they have a license to pollute for free,” he says. “And that makes them huge amount of money.”

    The public is only now catching up to what’s happening.

    Murphy has some cred behind him, with degrees in natural resources, wildlife fisheries biologies and aquatic resources from the University of Vermont, and a master’s in fisheries biologies from Humboldt State. He also spent time working at a land-based fish farm in Ireland and as a fisheries biologist with the California Tahoe Conservancy before becoming a filmmaker.

    When he discovered that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard was seeking to make a film about the arrogance of humankind, Murphy jumped at the chance. The film is about salmon but has a broader message, he says — how we try to control what’s wild for our own consumption and greed.

    The film highlights the salmon farming industry in northern European countries such as Iceland, Norway, Scotland and Ireland, and takes viewers into hatcheries in California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Hatcheries, we’re told, are being used to conserve salmon. “But that’s rarely the case,” he says. “What we’re conserving is the opportunity for people to catch them. When a dam is put in, it destroys the life cycle of the fish. Putting a hatchery at the bottom of the dam, as we’ve historically done, hasn’t helped. If hatcheries had worked, there would be unending numbers of fish.”

    The film, which debuted earlier this year at the Tribeca film festival, has been earning praise.

    “‘Artifishal’ becomes more than a movie about fish, or even about conservation. It’s a movie about what it means to be a creature uniquely capable of such soaring achievements of ingenuity and, at the same time, such aggressive and lethal idiocy,” writes the Guardian.

    The film is “eye-opening and grimace-inducing,” writes Treehugger.

    “’Artifishal’” makes a strong argument for native wild fish in self-sustaining habitats,” notes the Traverse City Record Eagle.

    Murphy is hopeful that his documentary gets people to think about what we’re actually losing by focusing on profits and pleasure.

    “We’ve lost touch, I think, of what it is to be wild, and I hope the film leaves people wrestling with that question — have we reached the end of wild? Where it doesn’t matter if it’s wild; it just matters that we want more.” he says. “Humans will never be as good as making fish that are going to live in the wild as nature. We have to recognize where human technology can help and where human technology can hurt. My solution, what the film is proposing, is fix those habitats that have been degraded and allow nature to do its work.”

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  • Trump Frees Water for California Cities and Growers, Angers Environmentalists

    October 26, 2019

    CalMatters By Alastair Bland

    The Trump administration this week declared that pumping more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to supply farms will not jeopardize the endangered salmon and smelt that live in the estuary. This clears the way for the federal government to deliver more water, possibly as soon as next year.

    he decision is a big and controversial step toward providing more water for people and less for fish. But the battle, yet another in a decades-long struggle for California’s water, has only just begun.

    What Was the Announcement About?

    Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Reclamation proposed a plan to pump more water from the Delta. But because the waters contain endangered fish — including delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon— two fisheries agencies were required by the Endangered Species Act to review the plans and make sure they would not push any species to extinction.

    On Tuesday, these agencies — the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — released their reports, called biological opinions. Through 1,300 pages of analysis, they concluded that the new Central Valley pumping plan “will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat.” Environmental advocates and some fishery scientists disagree.

    What Will This Decision Mean for the State’s Water Supply?

    Probably not much — at least not yet — if you aren’t a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. Experts say it will probably result in between 300,000 and 500,000 acre-feet more water removed from the Delta each year via pumping stations near Tracy. That’s a considerable jump from the annual average of 4 to 5 million acre-feet. (One acre-foot of water is about what the average household uses in six months to a year.) Most of the newly diverted water would flow to San Joaquin Valley farmers.

    The new rules have been welcomed by California growers, as well as the urban water agency that serves millions of residents in Southern California. “While this creates some uncertainty about our future supplies, it is without question a better approach,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

    But Jon Rosenfield, a senior scientist with the environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper, said marginal gains from the plan won’t be worth the harm to endangered species. “They’re going to cause more harm to species that are already circling the drain just so they can get a little more water,” he said.

    A tiny, silvery fish called the delta smelt once shoaled by the millions at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers but are now widely considered to be functionally extinct. In fact, few are caught anymore in scientific sampling efforts. Winter-run Chinook salmon historically returned to the Sacramento in spawning runs of hundreds of thousands of adults. Today, a few
    thousand make the trip each year. In addition, killer whales are an endangered species, primarily because the salmon they depend on for food are depleted.

    The agencies that wrote the new water plans are saying they would improve conditions for smelt and salmon compared with previous management guidelines. “We have a plan that is much better for fish, farms, and communities than our current operations,” said Ernest Conant, a regional director with the Bureau of Reclamation, in a press conference on Tuesday.

    But others dispute this. They say that the fish are already too close to extinction to tolerate any further water diversions.

    “The agencies have said that this won’t make things worse—but my question is, what if things are already worse?” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

    The entire Delta ecosystem is in peril, as revealed by annual surveys that have shown crashing populations of several native fish species. Many scientists have concluded that, among other things, more water must be left in the Delta and allowed to reach San Francisco Bay in order to improve the health of the estuary.

    In 2018 the State Water Resources Control Board determined that survival of the fish depends on water pumps taking less water from the estuary. In fact, it said “existing regulatory minimum Delta outflows are too low to protect the ecosystem.”

    The new plan would do the opposite — take more water. It also could allow more pumping at times of the year when fish are likely to be near the powerful pumps that draw up the water.

    Paul Souza, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the new rules will involve eyes-on-the-water monitoring and therefore be more effective. “We’ve got boats on the water several times a week. We know that the fish are in an area by the pumps and Reclamation has agreed to curtail pumping in that event.”

    But Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at University of California, Davis, questions these methods. “They’ll be depending on very intense monitoring, and that’s hard to do,” he said.

    hat’s largely because Delta smelt are now so rare that they are hard to find in the first place. The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged this in 2012, when it reported that for every smelt found in sampling efforts, another 100 to 1,000 may have died in the pumps.

    Also, the pumps in question — so powerful that they can reverse the flow of the state’s largest river – cannot be turned off in an instant’s notice. “It takes days to slow them down,” Rosenfield said. “This is not a counter top blender.”

    Was This Decision Based on Science?

    The biological opinions cited scientific data. But politics might have influenced the findings. In July, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service warned in a draft biological opinion that the water plan, which was initiated during President Obama’s last year in office, would jeopardize the fish. But the Trump administration replaced those staff scientists with a new team, and just a couple months later they released new conclusions that the fish were not in jeopardy.

    To some scientists, this reshuffling of staff and rewriting of the findings looks like fishy business.

    “It automatically makes me suspicious of the findings of the biological opinions, that they will cause no jeopardy,” Moyle said. “You really need to look at these opinions with extra scrutiny.”

    What Will Gov. Newsom Do?

    “That’s the million-dollar question, and we’re all waiting to see,” said Rosenfield of the San Francisco Baykeeper. In September, Newsom vetoed a bill that was aimed at defending California against Trump administration rollbacks of environmental laws.

    But there is another weapon Newsom could use to defend the state’s natural resources. It’s called the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. An update would establish strict new standards for freshwater flows through the Delta and into San Francisco Bay.

    These standards are meant to protect many uses of water, including rare and endangered species and valued commercial species, like fall-run Chinook salmon. “Newsom could encourage the state water board to complete that update process,” Rosenfield said.

    Newsom’s administration also could enforce the state Endangered Species Act. Another option would be for the state’s water delivery system, which serves millions of households, to throttle back its own pumps when the Bureau of Reclamation turns its pumps on high.

    “California is, and will continue to be, a leader in the fight for clean air, clean water and endangered species,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, Deputy Secretary for Communications for the California Natural Resources Agency. “We will evaluate the federal government’s proposal, but will continue to push back if it does not reflect our values.”

    What Are the Next Steps? Will it Wind Up in Court?

    Doug Obegi, a water law attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there is no doubt that environmental organizations, perhaps including commercial fishing groups, will challenge the new plan in court. If the Trump administration’s claims that it won’t harm endangered species don’t stand up to
    legal scrutiny, it would be a huge win for environmentalists. But if the plans do hold their own against legal challenges, they could take effect next year. 

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  • Marin salmon run expected to dwindle this year

    October 19, 2019

    Marin Independent Journal By Will Houston

    Following the robust runs of endangered coho salmon in Marin last winter, researchers expect a smaller run to return this year, though to a much-improved watershed.

    “I personally have never seen so much work being done to restore salmon habitat,” said Eric Ettlinger, aquatic ecologist for the Marin Municipal Water District. “There were major projects constructed this year by MMWD, by SPAWN (the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network) and Marin Resource Conservation District. Those projects all were intended to increase the survival of young salmon through the winter as well as during drought conditions and during low-flow conditions.”

    The various habitat projects have been working to provide spaces for the newly hatched coho to seek refuge from predators and the elements during their year-and-a-half long rearing period in freshwater.

    Coho salmon are set to enter the Lagunitas Creek watershed starting in November and in the winter months after to spawn. Last year, monitoring agencies and groups recorded the highest count of coho egg nests, known as redds, in 12 years with 369 redds and 738 adults, according to Ettlinger. The number is still far short of the recovery target of 1,600 adults required to bring the species out of its endangered status.

    A smaller run is expected to return this year because of the lower number of spawning adults recorded a few years ago, Ettlinger said. Coho salmon spend about a year and a half in freshwater and a year and a half in the ocean before returning to freshwater to spawn and die.

    What’s encouraging researchers more is how well the newly hatched coho from last season are surviving.

    The higher-than-average rainfall last winter and spring provided ample opportunity for spawners to move up the creek and into smaller tributaries. However, the heavy rainfall also created swifter flows, which risk destroying the precious eggs and young fish.

    “We were happily surprised just within the last month to see a lot of young coho in the streams,” Ettlinger said. “And it seems like a lot of those redds and incubating eggs survived the high flows.”

    This month, National Park Service researchers found young coho salmon as well as endangered freshwater shrimp on a tributary, McIsaac Creek, for the first time.

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  • October 18, 2019

    Santa Barbara Independent By Nick Welsh

    Los Padres ForestWatch has sued the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District, charging that Twitchell Reservoir dam operations are inflicting serious ongoing damage to the steelhead trout, a federally endangered species, that rely on the Santa Maria River. The lawsuit, also brought by San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, charges that the timing of water releases from the dam — designed to maximize groundwater recharge — has effectively rendered certain reaches of the lower river all but impassable during critical times in the steelhead’s spawning cycle. Such flow alterations, the lawsuit alleges, “are harassing, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing and harming steelhead.”

    The remedy would require a change in the timing of downstream releases, argued attorney Maggie Hall of the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), who filed the suit with Jason Flanders of the Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group and with Cooper & Lewand-Martin. The amount of water that needs to be released to accommodate the steelhead, Hall said, is relatively modest, only 4 percent the total volume of water stored in the dam on any given year. The Bureau of Reclamation was sued because it owns the dam, which it paid to have built in 1958 and for which it established the protocols outlining exactly how much water can be released downstream and when.

    This is the first such legal action involving the steelhead and the Santa Maria River. Typically, such fights have involved the endangered fish in the Santa Ynez River, its many creeks, and the creation and management of Bradbury Dam. Recently, the State Water Resources Control Board finally resolved a longstanding legal dispute dating back no less than 20 years over steelhead in the Santa Ynez River watershed that will affect the timing and quantity of downstream releases necessary to establish a sustainable habitat for a creature biologically accustomed to surviving the South Coast’s intense and sometimes violent oscillations between floods and drought.

    Seventy years ago, according to the lawsuit, the Santa Maria River boasted the second richest run of steelhead in Santa Barbara County. In 1941, when the river was bursting at its banks from heavy rains, city residents were fishing for steelhead from city streets. But since the dam was built, the steelhead population in the river has dwindled dramatically to mere remnant numbers. That’s because the dam was built on the Cuyama River about five miles east of where it joins with the Sisquoc River, at which point it becomes the Santa Maria River, which runs 24 miles before it empties into the ocean.

    Steelhead are behaviorally complex creatures. They’re born in river tributaries and go out to sea upon adolescence. When they return — and they always return up the same stream from which they came, guided by the scent of the water— their body mass is significantly larger. Returning females lay three times as many eggs as females who remain landlocked and never make the trip. Landlocked steelhead are genetically identical but are known simply as rainbow trout.

    In this case, the Twitchell Reservoir landlocked many upstream steelhead, preventing them from making the life-cycle-defining trip out to sea. It also blocks off much river habitat that would be suitable for spawning and early development. Even so, the lower reaches of the Santa Maria River offer some habitat suitable for steelhead — but only if the dam is releasing enough water to allow the steelhead to make it back upstream.

    According to the ForestWatch lawsuit, dam operators have very carefully calibrated the size and timing of downstream releases to maximize infiltration into the aquifers under the river. For the steelhead, that’s problematic in the extreme. These downstream releases, the lawsuit alleges, offer the fish just enough water to get them partway up or down the river, but not all the way. The lawsuit identifies a particular pinch point in the river — Fugler Point about five miles downstream from Santa Maria — where the fish find themselves stranded and die.


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