News & Stories

  • Denis Peirce: Next year’s salmon numbers look promising

    November 29, 2018

    The Union of Grass Valley by Denis Peirce

    The salmon stocks off our coast are not one big school of fish rather it is a collection of many different groups that return to different rivers at different times of the year.

    We live on the edge of the Sacramento Valley and our focus is the Sacramento and Feather River runs. There is a run to the south of us on the Mokelumne River that has been making a remarkable recovery from a very low point a few years back.

    I first became aware of the salmon run on the Mokelumne River over 10 years ago. I wanted to learn where and how to fish for stripers on the Delta.

    A friend recommended going south of Sacramento on I-5 to the Walnut Grove off ramp near Galt and launch at Wimpies Marina. It is on the Mokelumne river and it can be good striper water at times. That trip the only fish landed was a nice but dark salmon.

    On the hunt for stripers

    Two years ago in October I wanted to fish for stripers in the Delta and Wimpies was my first choice for where to put in. I showed up mid-morning and there was not one place to park. Every conceivable turnout had a boat and trailer jammed in.

    I checked with the staff at Wimpies and was told that October was the month for the salmon run on the Mokelumne. The salmon were fresh from the ocean and the bite was on. Farther to the north on the Feather and the Sacramento rivers the best time for fresh fish was August and September. The angling pressure follows the good fishing.

    The Mokelumne has not always been a go-to river for salmon fishing. In fact, in the early 1990s it was in poor shape.

    The rebound in the salmon returns of the last 20 years stems from a 1998 agreement between the Department of Fish & Wildlife and East Bay Municipal Utility District. The agreement focused on water operations, including managing cold water in Camanche and Pardee reservoirs to maintain good spawning conditions and releasing pulse flows to attract salmon to the hatchery. There is an ongoing tagging program to monitor the results.

    Another aspect of the success is the transporting of the juvenile salmon by barge through the Delta to boost survival rates

    A positive impact

    The success of the Mokelumne River Hatchery program has been remarkable. In 2017 there was a record return of 19,954 salmon which is double the 20 year average of 9,541 fish. As of Nov. 28 of this year there have been 14,800 returning compared to last year's 16,500 as of the same date.

    What is surprising is the impact of the Mokelumne fish on salt water salmon angling off the coast. Based on tagging data this year, 35 percent of sportsman caught salmon and 20 percent of commercial catch from the California coast are from the Mokelumne River hatchery. This river is among the smallest tributaries to the Delta but it produces a tremendous amount of our fish.

    The outlook for steelhead is also quite promising. We are at the beginning of the seasonal hatchery return but expectations are for returns approaching the 600 fish record from last year. Compared with the long term average of 160 steelhead we appear to be at a cyclical peak but the improved water management is a major factor.

    In comparison the Feather River had a good season in 2018. The adult salmon hatchery return was close to 30,000 fish which is double the 15,000 from 2017. The count of returning "jacks" was 12,000 this year an increase over the 8,000 from last year.

    The steelhead numbers for the January 2019 spawn look promising. The Feather River Hatchery does not start holding steelhead in the tanks until mid December. Those that come to the hatchery early, are returned to the river.

    So far, this year the hatchery personnel have returned 400 to 500 steelhead. If these were all unique fish, it would be sufficient to produce the 450,000 steelhead goal for this facility, without the fish that arrive in late December and into January.

    The Feather River contribution to the salt water salmon catch is typically about 60 percent of the take. The Coleman Hatchery for Sacramento River fish produces the greatest quantity of fish but its salmon are not a proportional amount of the ocean catch.

    Next year in October, when the salmon on the Feather are getting dark, head south to the Mokelumne River. The river is deep enough for prop boats and there are a lot of salmon to be caught.

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  • Salmon surge: Habitat improvements paying off on one California river

    November 28, 2018

    San Francisco Chronicle by Peter Fimrit

    Near record numbers of chinook salmon are surging up the Mokelumne River, marking the second large spawning year in a row and signaling to fisheries biologists that habitat improvements in recent years are paying off for fish and the people who eat the pinkish delicacies.

    The Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery, a Sierra foothills plant that is part of California’s sprawling Central Valley river system, has processed 13,695 salmon so far this year, a number that by the end of the year could come close to last year’s record of 19,954 returning fish.

    It is expected to be the best two-year run on the river since records started being kept in 1940, a significant accomplishment given how dismal salmon returns have been over the past three years in virtually every other waterway in California, including the Sacramento River, which last year saw its lowest returns in
    eight years.

    The incursion in the Mokelumne is the result of increases over the past few years in cold water releases from the reservoirs, better management of hatchery fish and habitat improvements in the river, according to fisheries biologists.

    “It’s a very positive trend,” said Jose Setka, the manager of fisheries and wildlife for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies Mokelumne River water to 1.4 million East Bay customers. “We’re very excited. I think it’s just the culmination of a number of different management actions we’ve taken over the last decade that have pushed us to the next level.”

    Steelhead numbers are also up for the third consecutive year. Setka said they are on pace to match the 500 to 600 that returned each of the past two years. He said 100 returning steelhead used to be considered a good year.

    It is the fall run chinook, otherwise known as king salmon, that are most important to fisheries biologists because that is the species that commercial fishermen catch and fish markets sell. The count is a crucial gauge of how many salmon survive the ocean and swim upriver to the place where they were born.

    The salmon, in this case, have imprinted on the Mokelumne so they instinctively swim to the hatchery, where they are taken inside on conveyor belts and unceremoniously clubbed to death. Workers then cut out their eggs, which are fertilized with sperm milked out of the males, and the resulting babies are raised until they are ready to be released.

    Fall run chinook, so named because the fish return to their native streams in the fall, pass through San Francisco Bay and roam the Pacific Ocean as far away as Alaska before returning to their natal streams, usually at age 3, to spawn. Salmon born into the wild die naturally after laying their eggs in gravel.

    The other chinook populations — the winter and spring runs — have been so badly depleted that in most waterways there are too few of them to allow fishing.

    The Mokelumne hatchery was built for $13 million 20 years ago as part of a relicensing agreement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The improved hatchery — a rudimentary one existed before — was mitigation for the disruption of the fish migration caused by the construction of dams, including at the Camanche Reservoir in Amador, Calaveras and San Joaquin counties and the Pardee Reservoir in Amador and Calaveras counties.

    The water released from the reservoirs flows through the Central Valley and meets the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is a crossroads for one of the largest annual fish migrations on the West Coast. Fish released from the Mokelumne made up 20 percent of the commercial catch and 35 percent of the recreational catch off the coast of California in 2017.

    About 2,000 fewer salmon have spawned in the Mokelumne so far this fall compared with last year at this time, but Setka said the number is well above the 20-year average of 9,541. It is, Setka said, a strong indication that recent improvements made by the water district in collaboration with the Department of Fish and Wildlife have been effective.

    The district has added 70,000 cubic yards of gravel, about 300 dump-truck loads, to the river near the hatchery every year since the late 1990s. Bursts of cold water, called “pulse flows,” have also been released from Lake Camanche during the spawning season to inspire the salmon to swim upriver.

    Cross-channel gates have also been added near Walnut Grove in Sacramento County to prevent Mokelumne and Sacramento salmon from getting confused and going up the wrong river, he said.

    A specialized diet has been developed to assist the fish as they transfer from freshwater to seawater, and a pilot program is being completed this year in which biologists barge juvenile chinook downriver in underwater tanks before they are let go to help them imprint on the river.

    Setka said about a quarter of all the chinook that are released get wire tags with numeric codes inserted in their snouts so that biologists know where they came from when they are captured or die spawning.

    The Mokelumne work is critical as an example of what can be done to improve both the California river system and the health, fertility and survival of hatchery fish. Studies over the past decade have shown that hatchery-raised fish pass on genetic defects that hamper survival of their offspring, and can even reduce the fitness of their wild relatives when they interbreed.

    Setka hopes to take steps in the future to help the wild salmon in the Mokelumne, which currently make up only about 20 percent of the fish in the river.

    The record run last year happened while the rest of the Central Valley river basin, including the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers, suffered through the worst salmon returns since 2009. Only 101,222 chinook were counted last year in all of the rivers combined, including the Mokelumne, according to state records. The two years before that were only slightly better.

    The overall number of returning chinook, which are historically most abundant in the Sacramento River and its tributaries, is not yet available, but Peter Tira, a Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said spawning has improved dramatically overall this year.

    The best salmon year on record was 2002, when 872,669 fish returned to the Central Valley. Rock bottom was reached in 2009, when only 53,129 salmon spawned in the river system.

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  • Press release from Friends of the Eel River: Friends of the Eel Petition for Protection of Northwestern California Summer Steelhead

    November 26, 2018

    RedHeaded Blackbelt by Kym Kemp

    Friends of the Eel River have formally petitioned state and federal fisheries agencies to protect the summer steelhead of Northwestern California rivers under their respective Endangered Species Acts. These unique, and increasingly rare, fish are clearly distinct from more numerous, and less vulnerable, winter-run steelhead.

    “Given their critical conservation status, North Coast summer steelhead should be immediately listed as endangered,” said Friends of the Eel River Conservation Director Scott Greacen.

    The differences between summer steelhead and winter-run fish are stark. Summer steelhead generally enter freshwater in spring, spend the dry season in coldwater refugia, then spawn further up their watersheds than any other anadromous (sea-run) fish.

    Summer steelhead include the largest adults of any steelhead and the strongest swimmers and highest-leaping fish of any salmonid. Unlike winter steelhead, summer steelhead enter freshwater as “bright” fish, with undeveloped gonads; they prepare to spawn over the summer while fasting, subsisting on a much higher level of body fat than winter-run steelhead.

    Thanks to significant technology-driven advances in genetic science, recently published studies have demonstrated that summer steelhead’s physiological and behavioral adaptations are the result of a specific genetic difference with winter steelhead.2 As well, this research shows that protection schemes which lump summer and winter run steelhead together, as the federal listing for Northern California steelhead now does, lead to the irrevocable loss of summer-run fish.

    Under the federal Endangered Species Act, these studies clearly constitute the “best available science,” which must be taken into account in making decisions about the protection of threatened and endangered species.

    “Science now confirms what tradition and experience have always told us: summer steelhead are truly different from their winter run cousins,” said Greacen. “Once we recognize this, it’s clear that the conservation status of summer steelhead is absolutely dire. There are probably fewer than a thousand adults spawning each year across their entire range, from Redwood Creek to the Mattole River, including the largest known populations in the Middle Fork Eel and Van Duzen Rivers. That’s why we’ve asked the federal National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to list summer steelhead as endangered under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.”

    Friends of the Eel River are particularly concerned by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) current effort to relicense PG&E’s Scott Dam, a century-old, 130’ concrete dam that completely blocks fish passage to hundreds of miles of steelhead spawning habitat in the Upper Mainstem Eel River basin. The National Marine Fisheries Service notes in its 2016 Coastal Multi-Species Recovery Plan that the “Upper Mainstem Eel River steelhead population was once the longest-migrating population in the entire (regional population). Restoring access to historical habitat above Scott Dam is essential to recovering this population.” It also notes that “Scott Dam currently blocks access to 99 percent of the potential habitat available to this steelhead population.”

     

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  • Close to Home: A once in a lifetime chance to restore the Eel River

    November 22, 2018

    Santa Rosa Press Democrat by Curtis Knight AND Brian Johnson

    It’s a familiar story: human activity leaves salmon and steelhead populations clinging to survival by a thread. But all is not lost. In a few places, we have the chance to rewrite how the story ends. One such place is Northern California’s Eel River.

    Most Californians are unfamiliar with the Eel River, which traverses Humboldt, Mendocino, Lake and Trinity counties. Even many Sonoma County residents, whose water comes in part from this watershed, have likely never seen the Eel’s blue-green waters with their own eyes.

    One of California’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Eel is the state’s third-largest watershed. It encompasses 3,600 square miles of mostly undeveloped land used for timber harvesting, farming and ranching. Large swaths are protected as public lands famous for towering stands of redwood trees.

    Tens of millions of public dollars already have been spent in this watershed to preserve redwoods and other sensitive habitat and on river restoration projects — $60 million since 2000 alone. And legislation recently passed would convert an old Eel River canyon railroad right-of-way into a world-class hiking trail. Thanks to these strategic investments, the Eel is poised for a comeback. But two 100-year-old chunks of concrete stand in the way: the dams of the Potter Valley Project.

    PG&E’s Potter Valley Project, located near the Eel’s headwaters, produces a trickle of hydroelectricity and diverts Eel River water into Potter Valley in Mendocino County and Sonoma County’s Russian River. In the Russian, it supplements flows and provides irrigation water to wine producers in the Alexander Valley and for use by ranchers, farmers and Sonoma County residents. The project includes two dams, a hydroelectric facility and a diversion tunnel. It has also completely blocked more than 150 miles of fish habitat since 1908. But that could change.

    Due to federal regulations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must issue a new license for the Potter Valley Project by 2022. Relicensing is a complex process that looks at all the impacts of the project. The outcome will set the Eel River’s course for the next 50 years. It is a once in a lifetime chance to bring this infrastructure up to 21st century standards, to benefit both the people and the fish that depend on this river for survival. Doing so would almost certainly require expensive investments.

    PG&E wants out of this money-losing operation and has recently put the project out for bid. Meanwhile, conversations are underway among public agencies, tribal governments, conservationists and others to identify the best path forward to restore this river. One promising option would remove both dams and divert water to Mendocino and Sonoma County users during the rainy season when it is most plentiful. This approach would allow the Eel to flow free while still addressing the need for water in both counties. It would also restore headwaters access for native fish, a critical step for populations to rebound.

    A river healthy enough to support robust fish populations is also clean enough to benefit the people who depend on it. Now is the time to push for a solution that meets the needs of fish and all the people who depend on this majestic river. We have a chance to take a bold step forward toward a truly sustainable future for the region.
     

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  • San Joaquin River salmon make big gains, but don’t call it a comeback yet

    November 22, 2018

    The Fresno Bee By Lewis Griswold

    Fish biologists bringing back salmon runs on the San Joaquin River say a record number of fish nests have been found in the river below Friant Dam east of Fresno.

    The number of nests, called redds, created by spring-run Chinook salmon reached 41 this year, compared to just 13 last year.

    “It’s a vast improvement over previous years,” said fish biologist Don Portz, manager of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. “That’s triple the amount.”

    The numbers are encouraging to fish scientists because they show the restoration program is making progress in re-establishing a wild salmon fishery on the San Joaquin after six decades of absence. But there’s a lot of work to do before scientists can say they’ve done all they can.

    “Right now we’re in the infancy stages of bringing the fish back,” Portz said.

    Last year, for the first time in 60 years, spring-run Chinook salmon successfully reproduced in the river, which made headlines.

    To monitor the fish after they hatch, biologists are installing special nets, called emergence traps, directly on top of nine redds. The nets are designed to catch, but not kill, emerging salmon fry.

    So far this year, no salmon fry have been found, but it’s early yet. It takes a couple of weeks for fish to hatch and a lot depends on water temperature. But when they appear, experts will count them, weigh them, measure them and test for genetics.

    “I think it’s incredibly rewarding work to see how the fish are actually thriving in the sections of the river we are working on,” said fish biologist Stephanie Durkacz, who donned waders and installed several traps over the past two weeks. “There haven’t been spring-run chinook salmon spawning here in 60 years. ... It feels very historic.”

    Turning the ‘spigot’ back on

    The work is being done because an agreement with environmentalists requires the federal government to restore the lost salmon runs. A long stretch of the San Joaquin River dried up and with it the salmon when Friant Dam was built in the 1940s.

    Several fish biologists, lawyers and members of the public recently toured the river with the Water Education Foundation, based in Sacramento. Portz, the river restoration program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, laid out the stakes.

    “This is a river that didn’t have flows for over half a century,” Portz said. “It’s not an easy thing to turn on the spigot and let water start flowing again.”

    But hatchery-raised adult salmon released into the San Joaquin River are making redds and spawning, giving fish scientists hope for success.

    A major goal of the restoration program is for salmon eggs laid naturally in the river to hatch and for juvenile salmon to swim to the ocean, reach sexual maturity, then return as adult salmon to spawn and die — and for the cycle to start all over again as it did for time immemorial.

    That’s how it was until Friant Dam blocked the river in 1948 and the water stored in Millerton Lake was diverted to farms on the Valley’s east side as part of the federal Central Valley Project.

    But under California fish and game code, dams must release enough water to keep fish alive downstream.

    In 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the dam, and all of the irrigation districts that use the water for farming. A federal judge sided with the NRDC.

    At the judge’s urging, the parties in 2006 hammered out the San Joaquin River settlement mandating that both spring and fall salmon runs be restored, from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River a distance of 153 miles.

    Seeking a self-sustaining salmon population

    There are two kinds of salmon in the San Joaquin River — fall run and spring run salmon.

    Spring run salmon evolved to take advantage of spring pulses of snowmelt rushing down from the Sierra Nevada. Historically, the fish swam up from the ocean and lived in deep pools of cool water during the summer, then spawned in the fall.

    By contrast, fall run salmon arrived in late November to early December and quickly spawned. Both spring run and fall run juveniles swim to the ocean in the late winter and spring.

    “If you can’t bring them both back, we’re supposed to focus on the spring run,” Portz said.

    The fish that hatched in the river late last year are spring run salmon. It was considered a major milestone.

    The work has been slow to ramp up, but Portz says they’ll have all the necessary work completed by the end of 2024 so both spring and fall run salmon can swim unimpeded from the ocean to Friant Dam.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council is keeping a close watch on developments.

    “Progress is slower than required, and that is disappointing,” said NRDC lawyer Doug Obegi in an interview with The Bee. Still, he said, “we should have a fully functioning river, and that’s encouraging ”

    The effort is funded by state and federal governments. Eastside farmers pay a “Friant surcharge” for their irrigation water, and the collected funds, about $8 million a year on average, is paid to the federal government.

    Portz said the original cost estimate for the restoration work was $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion, but program managers gave the budget a “haircut” to cut costs. “It still came to $648 million for just phase one,” he said.

    Costs include a new fish hatchery near Friant Dam, which is behind schedule but should open next year. The hatchery will eventually produce 1 million salmon fingerlings annually. An interim hatchery on the river now produces 200,000 fish per year.

    The hatchery is needed because naturally producing salmon on the river won’t be enough to restore the salmon runs, at least at first.

    “We want a naturally reproducing, self-sustaining population, but you need a supplement,” Portz said.
    What’s the next milestone?

    So far, returning adult Chinook salmon have not yet been seen in the San Joaquin River. But Portz and the other scientists have their fingers crossed that salmon will start showing up on the San Joaquin next spring.

    When that happens, “the returning adult spring run salmon will be the next milestone for the program,” he said.

    Because of physical barriers still in the river that stop the migrating fish, the fish will be netted downstream and trucked to the waters below Friant Dam, he said.

    There currently isn’t enough water in the river to support a fully functioning salmon fishery, Portz said. Levees will be built where needed so the channel can contain more water, he said.

    The long-term goal is to have tens of thousands of returning salmon — 10,000 fall run and 30,000 spring run.

    This year, 168,000 juvenile hatchery fish were released into the river and last year it was about 150,000. Similar numbers have been released since 2014. It takes two or three years for them to return as adults.

    There’s also a need to build “fish passages,” man-made structures allowing fish to swim around dams and get upriver on their own, which biologists call “volitional passage.” The fish passages will be built by 2024 as required by the settlement, Portz said.

    But it’s water temperature that is the crucial factor for salmon survival, he said, especially for juvenile fish going out to the ocean. That’s why cool water at the bottom of Millerton Lake must be sent downriver.

    “We have to time our releases effectively,” Portz said. “We need to have planned pulses to move the juvenile fish and start their migration to the ocean.”

    The settlement requires water in the river all year long. That leaves less irrigation water for farmers — about 15 percent to 20 percent less per year on average than before the settlement.

    But the farmers are banking on there being no more reductions and support bringing back salmon on the river.

    “Friant Water Authority continues to be invested in the long-term success of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement and program,” the water delivery agency said in a statement. “We believe the terms of the settlement were fair and we’re working with our partners to fully implement it.”

    One major unknown, meanwhile, is the effect of climate change on the San Joaquin River salmon. Spring run salmon would probably do better than fall run salmon in an era of global warming, Portz said.

    “Because they spawn earlier in the fall, they move out earlier in the year: February, March, into April,” he said. “Water temperatures are still cool.”

    But it means managers must make the right calls so the adult salmon will return despite climate change, he said.

    “People are going to say, ‘This can’t be done,’ ” Portz said. “But if we do our fish passage right, and provide the habitat that’s necessary, I think it is attainable.”

    Other work includes creating rearing habitat for salmon, adding screens to keep fish from migrating into side channels where they would get stranded, and building a fish screen, to be the largest in the state, to keep salmon out of Mendota Pool on the Valley floor.

    Additionally, more gravel must be put in the river so returning adult fish can create their redds.

     

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