News & Stories

  • California Vintner Steps Forward to Protect Endangered Salmon

    July 2, 2019

    NOAA West Coast Region

    The story begins in the late 1800s, when two real estate speculators, F.E. Kellogg and W.A. Stuart, bought part of a Spanish land grant in Sonoma County and built a post office, general store, school, cottages, a hotel, and a diversion structure on a nearby stream to provide water for residents and visitors to the town.

    Bypassed by the railroads, however, the little town of Kellogg eventually faded away, its remains razed by a wildfire in the 1960s that left only a handful of homes, agricultural buildings, and the water diversion structure and associated water system. Like many such remnant barriers, the concrete barrier reduced stream flow and blocked native fish, such as Central California Coast (CCC) steelhead and CCC coho salmon, a critically endangered species, from reaching their spawning habitat.

    Fulfilling the recovery plan

    NOAA Fisheries considers restoration of Yellow Jacket Creek an essential component in the Central California Coast Coho Recovery Plan.

    Today Yellow Jacket Creek, a tributary to the Russian River, provides water to the Kellogg vineyard and associated property uses on a 1,350 acre property.

    Biologists were thrilled when Katie Jackson, the Senior Vice President of corporate and social responsibility at Jackson Family Wines, approached NOAA Fisheries in Santa Rosa to discuss improving fish passage at the diversion on Yellow Jacket Creek, which would reopen access to nearly two miles of prime spawning and rearing habitat.

    “My parents envisioned a family-owned, multi-generation business. Part of that long-term vision is the preservation of resources entrusted to our care,” she said.

    Recovering threatened and endangered anadromous fish – which once thrived in creeks, streams, and rivers along the West Coast – depends in part on private landowners taking action to improve and protect habitat. As land stewards with this in mind, Jackson Family Wines is contributing to the large-scale recovery effort. NOAA Fisheries’ salmon and steelhead recovery plans, developed collaboratively with state and local government and private partners, help prioritize such improvements.

    “The most enjoyable part of this project was building a relationship between the federal government and a family-owned business,” said Dan Wilson, fisheries biologist for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region in Santa Rosa. “Building that bridge is really important for salmon recovery on the Central California Coast because it’s really small entities and families that own the majority of property where these fish spawn, rear, and fulfill their life cycle.”

    “One of the most exciting aspects of re-opening this particular stream to coho salmon is the additional restored habitat they will have, as well as the cold water flow they need,” said Wilson. “Even during the California drought, Yellow Jacket Creek produced orders of magnitude greater flow than other tributaries within the Russian River watershed.”

    Protection for landowners

    One fear landowners interested in improving their land stewardship and conservation practices may have is that improving their property for local wildlife will attract endangered species onto their land and bring new regulatory restrictions with them. Landowners may wonder: What does it mean for their liability under the Endangered Species Act? Will it hinder future land development, or other activities on their land?

    Fortunately, the Endangered Species Act provides tools and incentives for landowners to make such habitat improvements with little risk. One such tool, a Safe Harbor agreement, provides this regulatory assurance to participating landowners

    NOAA Fisheries and Jackson Family Wines began working on a Safe Harbor agreement several years ago, paving the way for replacement of the diversion structure and increased stream flows during fish migration seasons.

    "Managing our lands responsibly to ensure the ongoing viability of ecosystems in the foundation of how we farm and make wine. My hope is that my children will be able to watch once-endangered fish swim alongside our vineyards at the Kellogg Ranch," said Jackson.

    Trout Unlimited, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, and Jackson Family Wines all contributed to the reconstruction of the stream and removal of the concrete fish barrier, which was completed in October 2018 just before the winter rains. Future plans include stocking the stream with coho salmon from the Warm Springs Hatchery in Geyserville, with the expectation that many will return as adults two years later.


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  • Summer steelhead considered for protection under state Endangered Species Act

    June 13, 2019

    Eureka Times Standard By Shomik Mukherjee

    The Northern California summer steelhead is closer to being listed under the state’s Endangered Species Act as the state Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously 4-0 on Wednesday at its June meeting in Redding to review the species’ status over the next year.

    Summer steelhead fish are capable of swimming to and from the ocean, but the presence of the Scott Dam has disrupted their ability to migrate up the Eel River. The commission’s vote relied on a submitted petition, as well as the department’s own evaluation of the species.

    At a future meeting, the commission will make a final decision on whether to classify the summer steelhead as endangered.

    “This commences a one-year status review of the species and the commission will make a final decision at a future meeting,” the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced. “During the status review, summer steelhead have protections under (the state Endangered Species Act) as a candidate species.”

    The specific summer steelhead, a form of rainbow trout, has unique genetic capabilities that warrants its endangered status, said Scott Greacen, conservation director Friends of the Eel River.

    “What’s important here is recognizing that summer steelhead are really different and if we don’t protect them separately, we’ll lose them,” Greacen said.

    The distinction between summer steelhead and winter-run steelhead comes down to a single gene — uncovered by “exciting genetic research” — which makes the difference between a mature, migrating fish species and a premature one, Greacen said.

    Because of the genetic difference, the steelhead-type of rainbow trout don’t spawn immediately, while winter-run steelhead enter freshwater ready to spawn at any time.

    During the status review, state researchers will attempt to gather more data about the fish. The current research is “spotty at best,” Greacen said.

    “They’re so hard to find and so hard to count,” he said. “Part of the story here is you have to get to difficult-to-access places to find the fish. You’ll spend entire days backpacking to places near the (Van Duzen River) where you can’t get to without a helicopter.”

    Even then, the fish display tremendous migration capabilities, showing up above enormous boulders blocking the water.

    Greacen suggests that if it weren’t for the presence of the Scott Dam, the summer steelhead would travel regularly to the ocean and back. But with the effort of multiple organizations (including the conservation group California Trout) to acquire the Potter Valley water diversion in the Eel River basin, the dam could be removed in the coming years.

    “We are now closer than we’ve ever been,” Greacen said. “The steelhead could really be a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

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  • To save Klamath River salmon, shut down the hatcheries

    June 13, 2019

    The Los Angeles Times By Jacques Leslie

    In 2021, four large dams on the Klamath River are due to be demolished, in part to revive the river and Klamath Basin salmon. But unless salmon hatchery operations are discontinued soon afterward on the river, the effort will founder. Allowing hatchery salmon to mix with struggling native salmon after removing the dams is like rescuing a dying man only to slowly poison him.

    The Klamath dam demolitions, the world’s largest dam removal project, offer a spectacular opportunity to return this California and Oregon river to its wild state. Native salmon will be able to swim an additional 400-plus river miles from ocean to historical spawning grounds, completing a life cycle that replenishes not just the stock of wild salmon, but the health of the basin. Klamath salmon are keystone species in a food web that includes at least 137 animals.

    With sufficient habitat restoration and support for native fish, the Klamath could eventually reclaim its pre-dam ranking as the West Coast’s third-largest producer of wild salmon, after the Columbia and Sacramento rivers.

    Salmon hatcheries don’t belong in this picture. They are relics of an outdated worldview that maintains that technology can conquer and control nature. They curtail salmon runs on the river, and instead of diverse stocks of fish that possess varied abilities enabling them to return to spawn — and die — at spots all along the river where they were born, hatchery fish’s birthplace is a single place: the hatchery. The identical life histories of these fish make them more susceptible to disease and predators than their native relatives.

    They also pose a genetic threat to native fish. Salmon have survived for 10 million years because their diversity has allowed at least some of them to meet whatever environmental challenges faced them. But as hatchery and wild salmon mate, that diversity gets diluted, weakening native fish’s capacity to resist the many threats they face, including, most recently, human-induced warming river and ocean water caused by climate change. Pacific salmon are already close to extinction in at least 40% of their historical range. Continued reliance on hatcheries, rather than supporting wild fish, could mean that only human-assisted salmon will survive.

    There are two salmon hatcheries at stake on the Klamath, Iron Gate (now in operation) and Fall Creek (slated to come back online after dam demolition). Both were installed primarily to make up for dams’ environmental damage. The thinking went that although dams separated salmon from their spawning grounds, hatcheries would offset whatever depletion occurred by generating salmon in abundance. Of course, by that logic, removing the dams removes the rationale for the hatcheries.

    But like dams, once hatcheries are in place, they’re hard to dislodge. As salmon biologist Jim Lichatowich, author of “Salmon, People, and Place,” told me, “We’ve been sold the idea that hatcheries would make salmon more abundant than they ever were naturally. Then hatcheries were going to stop salmon’s decline. Now they’re talking about ‘conservation hatcheries’ to prevent extinction. Whenever hatchery proponents set a new goal and don’t meet it, they just change the goal.”

    Josh Murphy, director of “Artifishal,” a new documentary about saving wild salmon, describes wild salmon’s enemy as “the hatchery-industrial complex.” In his view it includes commercial and recreational anglers, fishing gear manufacturers, fishing guides, tourist businesses and politicians who treat hatcheries as political pork.

    The people who benefit from the hatchery-industrial complex care chiefly about the volume of salmon, not the manner of their production or its impact on the future of the species. Hatcheries maintain the illusion that salmon are bountiful. They seem to offer a painless way to maintain salmon populations without doing the hard work of restoring habitat, restricting fishing or in the case of the Klamath Basin, limiting water withdrawals for farming.

    In fact, maintaining the salmon hatcheries amounts to a federal subsidy for commercial and recreational fishing, a subsidy that is supposed to be justified by the fishery’s economic benefits. But in a career spent studying numerous Pacific Northwest salmon hatcheries, Hans Radtke, an Oregon-based natural resources economist, has found that their cost-benefit analysis doesn’t hold up. For example, a 2011 study Radtke conducted on Oregon’s Sandy River Hatchery concluded that its annualized production costs amounted to $1,620,000 but its economic benefits reached only $726,000.

    According to the current plan, once the Klamath dams are taken down, the Iron Gate and Fall Creek hatcheries will run at a little more than half pre-dam-demolition production levels. PacifiCorp, the utility that owns the Klamath dams, has agreed to support the hatcheries for eight years after dam removal; after that, funding is uncertain — and that’s a good thing. The salmon hatcheries on the Klamath should be phased out as quickly as possible. Even if the post-dam comeback of wild salmon is slow, river managers should resist pressure to continue or even expand hatchery operations.

    The best hatchery is a healthy river. 

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  • Reclamation, DWR take steps to improve habitat for endangered salmon at the Yolo Bypass

    June 10, 2019

    Maven's Notebook

    The Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources have evaluated options to improve fish passage and increase floodplain fisheries-rearing habitat in the Yolo Bypass, near Sacramento. These options explore how to benefit Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and the southern distinct population segment of North American green sturgeon. The agencies released environmental documents that analyze six action alternatives including a headworks structure at Fremont Weir and downstream channel improvements.

    “The Yolo Bypass is both a prominent element of California’s flood control system and a critical migration corridor for fish,” said Mid-Pacific Regional Director Ernest Conant. “This project shows what we can do when we work with our state and local partners to address fish and water supply reliability in California. I look forward to our work together to restore habitat while continuing existing land use.”

    The project aims to increase the connection of water and fish entering the Yolo Bypass, California’s largest continuous floodplain made up of 59,000 acres. This project will also provide seasonal inundation that mimics the natural process of the Yolo Bypass floodplain during winter and improves connectivity within the bypass and to the Sacramento River. This enables juvenile salmon to feed in a food-rich area for a longer time, allowing them to grow rapidly in size and improving their chances of survival as they travel to the ocean.

    The project primarily consists of a new structure at the head of the Fremont Weir, also known as a headworks structure, and channel improvements to an outlet and downstream channels. The new construction would connect floodplain habitat over the winter, when flooding occurs. Connecting floodplain habitat over the winter avoids significant impacts to land uses by operating within existing hydrology and outside of the agriculture season.

    The project meets requirements of the National Marine Fisheries Service 2009 Biological Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project (LTO) and is part of the Reinitiation of Consultation (ROC) on LTO.

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  • Hatchery-Born Coho Salmon Are Helping Save the Species From Extinction in the Russian River

    June 9, 2019

    KQED By Tiffany Camhi

    Right now, thousands of 1-year-old coho salmon, or smolts, are making their way to the Pacific Ocean from the Russian River in Sonoma County.

    But most of these endangered fish weren’t actually born in the river's tributaries. Instead, they were bred and raised at the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery in Geyserville.

    At the beginning of this century, the coho in the Russian River were almost completely eradicated.

    “We were seeing less than 10 adults returning to the Russian River watershed, when years ago there were thousands of fish returning,” says Mariska Obedzinski, who helps run California Sea Grant’s Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program.

    The Russian River watershed was once a stronghold for Central California’s coho salmon population, but Obedzinski says things like extreme habitat loss and drought years have led to the downturn. According to California Sea Grant, the state’s coho has dwindled down to an estimated 15% of its population in the 1940s.

    Obedzinski’s group, along with federal and local agencies, have been helping rebuild the coho population in Sonoma County through a combination of restoration efforts, monitoring and the hatchery program, which began in 2004. That was when some of the last handful of coho born in the watershed were captured and bred.

    “It was a last attempt to really save the coho salmon in the Russian River watershed,” says Obedzinkski.

    Now the program releases thousands of smolt, at different life stages, throughout the year in the Russian’s tributaries. More than 1.5 million smolt have been released since the program began. The fish are closely monitored to see how they're surviving, but watching over these young fish after releasing them into the wild is no easy task.

    Teams of biologists go out daily to check traps in five of the watershed’s creeks, hoping to find a mix of healthy hatchery-born and natural-born salmon.

    A contraption, made up netting and pipes, funnels anything going downstream into a covered, wooden box. On any given day, anywhere from a handful to hundreds of smolt can be found inside. And sometimes, other aquatic animals get stuck in the trap too.

    “If there's something big, you can hear it splashing around in there,” says Nick Bauer, a fisheries biologist with California Sea Grant.

    Bauer and his team count and scan every single coho they find before letting them go back downstream to the Russian River. A metal detector helps identify which fish have an implanted wire tag, which means they're hatchery-born.

    Then a portion are measured and weighed. An even smaller portion get trackers implanted in them, which help biologists monitor the migratory habits of the smolt and find out whether the fish come back to these creeks as adults to spawn.

    “We'd like to see wild fish being able to complete their life cycle in the streams on their own,” says Obedzinksi. “We ultimately would like to see the whole hatchery component go out of business.”

    Obedzinksi says the program is making progress. About 1,200 natural-born smolt were recorded in the watershed in 2018, the second highest amount documented since the program began, according to a recent report from California Sea Grant.

    “If this program wasn't in place, coho salmon would pretty much be extinct in the watershed,” says Bauer.

    But Bauer also says it’s not just about the coho. These fish are a cornerstone of a healthy ecosystem.

    “Over 127 different species will feed on salmon,” says Bauer. “And they perform this function of bringing ocean derived nutrients back to our freshwater systems and increase the health of the whole system.”

    Now the smolt heading to the Pacific Ocean are on their own. They’re at the beginning of what can be a treacherous journey. Most will spend about a year and a half growing up in the ocean, facing all sorts of predators and possibly another drought, before attempting to make their way back to the Russian River to spawn.

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