News & Stories

  • Volunteers give 720,000 salmon a head start on life

    May 5, 2019

    San Francisco Chronicle by Tom Stienstra

    In Half Moon Bay, some volunteers wanted more salmon in the ocean. Now they have them.

    In a testament to how to get what you want, the Coastside Fishing Club will take delivery of 720,000 juvenile salmon this month in three net pens in Pillar Point Harbor. The fish will be acclimated to ocean waters and then released this summer.

    This is more than a fishing story.

    If you want more flowers, plant them. If you want more songbirds, scatter some feed and put up a birdhouse. If you want hummingbirds, put up a few feeders. And if you want more salmon, grow them yourself.

    In the big picture, members of the Coastside Fishing Club recognize that the quality of habitat — for salmon, that would be the breeding grounds, rivers and the ocean — is the fundamental key for health and abundance for all species. They also recognize that when habitat has been compromised, you can give nature a helping hand.

    This year’s project starts Saturday, when about 35 volunteers will build three pens at Pillar Point Harbor. The Department of Fish and Wildlife then will deliver 720,000 smolts in three shipments, May 18, 25 and June 1.

    It is a spectacular sight to watch the fish release. From the pier, the young fish are shot out of a stream of water from a tanker truck and into the submerged nets below.

    By bringing the juvenile salmon to Pillar Point Harbor, the young fish bypass a maze of pumps, reverse currents in the delta and predators in a 300-mile river journey they otherwise would face en route to the ocean. To document survival rates, the club has embedded wire codes in the fish to later ID them. The net pen salmon have had about 10 times the survival rates compared with the salmon released from hatcheries, according to one study.

    The program started in 2012, and now, each year in late summer, 3-year-old salmon return to the entrance of the harbor and provide a fishery from Pillar Point Harbor that hadn’t existed. The fish eventually head north to San Francisco Bay and venture upriver to spawn.

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  • Chinook Salmon Spring-Run wraps up at One Mile Recreation Area

    May 1, 2019

    Action News By Stephanie Schmieding, Cecile Juliette

    CHICO, Calif. - The Big Chico Creek Chinook Salmon Spring-Run is just wrapping up at One Mile Recreation Area.

    There is a fish ladder at the bridge at One Mile Recreation Area, which helps the endangered salmon make the run through Sycamore Pool.

    The Spring-Run Chinook Salmon have been moving up Big Chico Creek, according to Michael Hellmair, a local fish biologist.

    "They started showing up a little over a week ago and they're making their way through downtown and Lower Bidwell Park and upstream to the coldest and deepest water they can find to spend the summer before they spawn their eggs and fall," he said.

    The species is endangered, which has led to fewer numbers making the run through Big Chico Creek in recent years.

    "There haven't been any returns in appreciable numbers to Big Chico Creek in the last few years, since about 2011, which is an indication that Big Chico Creek is a dependent population, these fish were actually born in a different stream," Hellmair said.

    The fish have been coming through the fish ladder and into Sycamore Pool for the past 10 days.

    "It's important to know that these fish live off of their energy reserves," he said. "So all of the food that they ate out in the ocean, they stored up as fat and that's what they have to live off of until they lay their eggs in early Fall."

    Hellmair captured photo and video of some of the salmon population making its way through Lower Bidwell Park.

    The city of Chico allowed the lowering of the dam so that it would make it easier for the fish to use the ladder into Sycamore Pool, he said.

    "Like I said, they have to live off of their energy reserves in the Summer," Hellmair said. "Every calorie counts."

    The Camp Fire did affect the Butte Creek Watershed, which is home to the largest spring run salmon population in the Central Valley.

    However, Hellmair said biologists will not know for another three years whether there is an impact on the fish due to the Camp Fire.

    "It's difficult to tell right now what the impacts are simply because we won't really know for another three years until that generation that was affected comes back so we can find out what those numbers were," he said.

    Hellmair is optimistic in saying that the fish population may be OK because the vegetation in that area of the watershed appears to be intact.

    "There may be some runoff of ash and debris, but hopefully it didn't have too big of an impact, but we won't know for sure for another three years," he said.

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  • Salmon Spawning Habitat Restoration Project underway in Redding

    April 30, 2019

    ABC Redding by Briona Haney

    Ton after ton of gravel is being dumped into the Sacramento River this month as part of a two week project to protect salmon spawning in the Northstate.

    "Historically, they spawned up stream from this area but with the completion of the Shasta Dam are no longer able to access their historic spawning grounds," said Director of Government Relations Northern California Water Association Todd Manley.

    Over the last four years, the Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery Program has completed 18 projects to protect the Northstate salmon populations. The program is run by a group of government and private organizations that all work together to get the projects done.

    Their most recent project, the "Salmon Spawning Habitat Restoration Project," involves pouring tons of river rock into the Sacramento River to protect the endangered Chinook salmon spawning ground.

    "By Thursday, we will have had 12,000 tons of spawning grade gravel put into the river system," said Project Manager Sacramento River Forum Harmony Gugino.

    They say the spawning grounds are vital to the endangered species survival and the Sacramento River ecology.

    "Salmon are very important to the ecosystem. They historically brought nutrients from the ocean to the upper reaches of the river. Once adult salmon spawn, they die and then their carcasses provide food in the rivers for other species," Manley said.

    During the project, crews have created disconnected platforms with the rock to help protect them from the river current.

    "That provides safety for the heavy equipment operators. It allows us to get accurate readings of the depth we're placing the rock and then, it also provides protection or separation between our work area and the species that are utilizing the main stem," Gugino said.

    The organization is using spawning grade salmon to protect the endangered species and build a safe place for them to reproduce. They say spawning grade gravel means it's about the size of your fist and has rounded edges to help them protect the eggs. While the groups are proud of this project and what it will be able to do, they also say it likely won't be their last.

    "This project is addressing the spawning fish but there's also projects addressing the up stream migration of adults, as well as downstream migration of juvenile fish once they come out of the salmon redds," Manley said.

    Work on this project began on April 22 and will continue through May 6.


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  • It hasn’t happened in 65 years. This threatened species has returned to the San Joaquin River

    April 25, 2019

    The Fresno Bee By Tim Sheehan

    Before the construction of Friant Dam and creation of Millerton Lake in 1942, the San Joaquin River was a historic spawning habitat for spring-run Chinook salmon.

    But it’s been more than 65 years since adult salmon returned from the Pacific Ocean to the river – until this month, that is.

    So far in April, five adult Chinook salmon have been discovered in the same area of the San Joaquin River for the first time in decades. Josh Newcom, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s San Joaquin River Restoration Program, said the salmon were all caught in net traps in an area of the river’s lower Eastside Bypass.

    “This is monumental for the program,” said Donald Potz, manager of the restoration program. “It’s a clear indication of the possibility for these fish to make it out of the system as juveniles and then return as adults to spawn.”

    The first of the five fish was caught on April 9. Scientists collected tissue samples and an acoustic tag was inserted down the fish’s throat so they could track its movements before they released the salmon into a portion of the river called Reach 1, a 40-mile stretch downstream from Friant Dam.

    Two fish were caught on April 19, and two more were caught this week – one on Tuesday, another on Wednesday – in the same part of the Eastside Bypass.

    Scientists could determine that all five salmon were from California hatcheries, and not wild fish, because their adipose fins – a small fin on the back between the dorsal fin and tail – had been removed.

    Additionally, one of the two fish caught on April 19 did not survive, and biologists were able to recover a coded wire tag embedded in its snout that confirmed it was one of more than 38,000 juvenile spring-run Chinook released into the river two years ago, in March 2017.

    Spring-run Chinook get their name from the March-through-June period when they leave from and return to the river system where they are spawned, according to the restoration program.

    Adult salmon inhabit the river’s cool upper reaches during the summer and spawn in the fall. After hatching and growing to juvenile stage, where they are about the size of a human hand, some fish migrate to the ocean or remain in the river for a year before migrating. Salmon spend two to five years maturing to adulthood before returning to the river, according to biologists.

    Additional tissue testing will be conducted to determine if any of the fish were spawned at a state hatchery along the river downstream from Friant Dam.


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  • Dead fish wash up near $6.3 million passageway designed to protect them. Why didn’t it work?

    April 24, 2019

    Sacramento Bee By Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler

    Dozens of fish carcasses — 13 of them Chinook salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act — rotted in the sun Tuesday a couple hundred yards from a new $6.3 million structure that state officials built specifically to keep that grisly scenario from happening.

    Before the winter and spring flood seasonthis year, engineers completed work on the new fish passage along the Fremont Weir, a nearly two mile-long concrete structure atop the Yolo Bypass. The bypass is a 40-mile long engineered flood plain that starts near Woodland and shunts flood waters from the Sacramento River into agriculture fields.

    The fish passage was intended to keep fish from becoming stranded along the weir and in the bypass once the flood waters receded back into the Sacramento River’s main channel. An automated gate was supposed to open once water levels got high enough to overflow into the bypass, allowing fish to swim back into the Sacramento River.

    But in February, state officials who manage the facility noticed it wasn’t working right. Too much water was pouring through the passage, eroding the structure. Officials had to close the gate almost entirely, meaning fewer fish could escape.

    The Department of Water Resources is now facing an expensive upgrade to an already multimillion structure to make it ready for the next rainy season — and prevent what happened this week.

    “Yesterday was the day of carnage,” Chris McKibbin, a regional fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said on Tuesday afternoon as he slowly walked with 11 state biologists in waist-deep water pushing a large net corralling fish along the Fremont Weir’s western stretch.

    Over the weekend, someone called a poaching tip line to alert state wildlife officers that fish were stranded in the receding waters along the weir, McKibbin said.

    When a team of biologists arrived on Monday to rescue the fish, they were too late for dozens of them. The biologists found the dead adult salmon, plus at least two dead white sturgeon, more than two dozen striped bass carcasses and other dead fish.

    The optics of the dead fish rotting next to the new facility raises fresh questions about whether habitat restoration programs championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, through his controversial Delta tunnels project, will be completed in time to make a difference. The programs are designed to prevent the extinction of numerous species of fish whose plummeting numbers in recent years have lead to wide-ranging cuts to California’s water supply.

    The erosion and design problem at the Fremont Weir facility comes after the Department of Water Resources has faced more than two years of withering criticism for allowing problems to fester at Oroville Dam, which suffered catastrophic damage when its spillways failed in 2017. Investigators cited decades of faulty design and maintenance.

    Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the setback at the Fremont Weir is a small one that shouldn’t detract from the important work state officials are doing to help the state’s struggling fish populations. She said lessons learned from this winter’s problems at the new passageway will be used to ensure they don’t happen elsewhere.

    “We’re always trying to tweak and improve our projects to address either known or unknown design issues to make them operate even better,” she said.

    The Fremont Weir, built in 1924, has long been a death trap for imperiled native fish such as green sturgeon, steelhead trout and Chinook, whose various runs are protected under state and federal endangered species laws. Fish that migrate into the flood waters of the bypass think it’s part of the Sacramento River’s natural flood plain.

    When the river recedes, fish become stranded in the shallow, rapidly-disappearing water that forms in the L-shaped lip at the bottom of the 1.8 mile-long concrete Fremont Weir.

    Over the years, biologists with McKibbin’s agency have staged numerous rescuesafter the flood waters recede to try to save as many fish as possible before the water dries up or they’re caught by poachers.

    After finding the dead adults on Monday, McKibbon and his team were able to rescue some 700 tiny juvenile fish along the weir adjacent to the new passageway. They rescued several dozen more adult and juvenile fish on the weir’s western section, which isn’t connected to the new structure.

    McKibbin said the dead adult salmon his team found this week were likely spring run Chinook, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species act, or winter run, which are among the most critically endangered fish in California.

    During California’s last drought, warm, low waters of the Sacramento River proved particularly lethal to the winter run Chinook, prompting regulators to cut the water supply for farms and cities across the state.

    People caught killing endangered fish would face hefty fines and prison time, but government agencies often are legally allowed to kill protected fish when they’re unintentionally trapped in California water infrastructure.

    In May 2018, state and federal officials held a groundbreaking ceremony at a new fish passage project saying it would help stop fish from being stranded. The $6.3 million passageway is largely funded by the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages dams and water-supply canals for the federal government.

    McKibbin said the passage appeared to be working earlier in the flood season, when underwater cameras caught at least 12 sturgeon swimming through the new structure before the flows were reduced to prevent the erosion.

    “It did pass some pretty big sturgeon,” he said.

    The Fremont Weir project is politically sensitive because it’s one of more than two dozen projects in California EcoRestore — former Gov. Brown’s plan to improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while the state forged ahead with his controversial Delta tunnels project.

    The EcoRestore habitat plan — which was seen as a way of appeasing critics of the multibillion-dollar Delta tunnels project — became controversial because of downsizing. The state initially said it would spend $8 billion to restore 100,000 acres of habitat. In 2015, Brown reduced that to 30,000 acres and $300 million. The state later committed to restoring an additional 1,800 acres.

    The tunnels project — which the state says will protect fish while improving the reliability of water deliveries to the southern half of the state — is now in limbo. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’d reduce the twin tunnels to a single tunnel. The state continues to move ahead on the habitat work.

    For instance, officials are planning in the coming years to build at least two similar passageways along the Frement Weir to ensure even more fish can move back and forth from the river. The new facility is an important test to ensure those passageways and others around the state work correctly, said Kristopher Tjernell, a deputy director at the state Department of Water Resources.

    “The bottom line is we’ve actually put a facility in this known man-made impediment to fish passage,” Tjernell said. “And we’re finally going to be able to solve this issue so we can ... see wild populations come back.”

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