News & Stories

  • First reintroduced salmon return to California rivers in a critical step towards recovery

    July 15, 2019

    NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region

    California salmon reintroduced to their historic habitat as juveniles are, for the first time, returning to their home rivers to spawn. Their journey home demonstrates that fish reintroductions can successfully return Golden State salmon to restored rivers and streams in an important step toward their recovery.

    More than 25 threatened spring-run Chinook salmon have returned to the San Joaquin River so far this year, the first spring-run salmon to swim up the river in more than 65 years. On Battle Creek to the north, at least 50 endangered winter-run Chinook salmon reintroduced in 2018 have also returned -- the first to return to the creek since dams built in the early 1900s blocked and damaged their habitat.

    Extensive habitat restoration by many partners on both the San Joaquin River and Battle Creek will help support the returning Chinook salmon, promoting recovery of these species.

    “The return of these fish demonstrates that our collective efforts to restore the river and reestablish Chinook salmon are working,” said Erin Strange, San Joaquin River branch chief in NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, who has worked toward reintroduction of spring-run salmon to the San Joaquin for 10 years. “While we celebrate this success, we continue to pursue our ultimate goal of a fully restored river with self-sustaining salmon populations. We are one step closer to that today."

    As many as 600,000 spring-run Chinook salmon once returned to California’s Central Valley, making up almost 20 different populations on individual rivers. Then, Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River and other obstacles cut off some 90 percent of their historic habitat. Today, only three wild populations remain, leaving the species threatened with extinction

    The San Joaquin River Restoration Program is seeking to turn that around by improving habitat, restoring flows, and reintroducing juvenile fish to the river. Biologists have released thousands of juvenile spring-run salmon to the river since 2014; those are the fish now returning from the ocean as adults. While monitoring has counted about 25 returning fish, more fish likely have returned without being detected.

    Biologists must truck the returning fish around obstacles in some sections of the river while the program pursues the ultimate goal of a barrier-free river the fish can transit on their own.

    “Reintroduction is our best hope of restoring California’s salmon, and these returns give us confidence that we will again see sustainable salmon runs in more California rivers,” said Maria Rea, Assistant Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Central Valley Office. “Recovery of these salmon populations will support the state’s economy and may ultimately allow more flexibility in managing river flows that are now dedicated to the fish.”

    Last year, biologists released juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon in Battle Creek to “jumpstart” their reintroduction to historic habitat. The releases followed a prolonged and severe drought in California’s Central Valley that severely reduced natural production of winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River in 2014 and 2015, increasing their risk of extinction.

    The jumpstart release accelerated the timeline for reintroducing winter-run Chinook to Battle Creek to improve the resiliency of the population.

    In addition to the approximately 50 fish that have returned to Battle Creek this year, biologists expect more fish from releases in 2018 and 2019 to return in coming years once they grow and mature in the ocean. The returning fish will help diversify the stock by spreading the risk beyond the single remaining population in the mainstem Sacramento River.

    The construction of Shasta Dam, about 75 years ago, blocked winter-run Chinook salmon from much of their historic mountain habitat, relegating them instead to a low-elevation stretch of the Sacramento River below the dam. That leaves the salmon exposed to high summer temperatures that put eggs and fry at risk. Water managers release cool water from Shasta Dam upstream to help protect those offspring.

    NOAA Fisheries’ recovery plan for winter-run Chinook salmon calls for reintroduction of the fish to Battle Creek and other high-elevation streams such as the McCloud River above Shasta Dam. This will give the fish safer footholds in cool-water habitat as climate change warms the exposed Sacramento where they have spawned since construction of the dam.

    “The key to the recovery of these fish is to reestablish them in waters where they can survive and thrive again,” Strange said. “They have persevered this long, and now they are showing us that they will take advantage of that habitat if they get the chance. We have a lot more work to do, but the returns this year show that goal is in reach.”

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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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