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  • Randall Benton / RBenton@sacbee.com

    Cramer Fish Sciences Fisheries Biologist Bill Beckett, left, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Scientific Aid Shawn Cox, and US Fish and Wildlife Service Hydrologist Craig Anderson test the water velocity and streambed permeability on the American River near River Bend Park in Rancho Cordova on Friday, January 17, 2014. Dams upstream keep gravel from naturally washing downstream, so - as part of a large project - 6,000 tons of gravel were added to the river bed to provide a better habitat for spawning chinook salmon. Recently, low water levels have left some of the salmon nesting areas (called redds) have been left high and dry. Today, biologists surveyed the American River to try to learn how many salmon eggs have been killed by low water levels. They sampled salmon redds (nests) for water quality, and the permeability of the river bed.

  • Randy Pench / Sacramento Bee file

    Dave Johnson of West Sacramento, accompanied by Karen Laudenschlager, holds his salmon which he caught in the Sacramento River on 2012 opening day of fishing season. Experts on Thursday said the projected salmon run this year should be enough to produce a good fishing season.

  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Sharon Olson of Roseville holds up her 16-pound salmon which she caught in the Sacramento River south of the American River. Olson was among the first to catch a salmon early this morning. Monday, July 16, 2012.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Steven Wood of Folsom fishes for salmon in the American River below Nimbus Dam on Jan. 11. Amid a drought, the California Fish and Game Commission requested that anglers stop fishing in the river until April 30. People wading in rivers can trample nests of eggs needed to sustain threatened fish.

  • Randall Benton / RBenton@sacbee.com

    Fishermen angle for salmon along the American River just below Nimbus Dam on Saturday, January 11, 2014. Flows from Folsom Dam to the American River were reduced because of drought-like conditions.

  • Randall Benton / RBenton@sacbee.com

    US Fish and Wildlife Service Hydrologist Craig Anderson, left, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife Scientific Aid Shawn Cox wade across the water with test equipment on the American River near River Bend Park in Rancho Cordova on Friday, January 17, 2014. Dams upstream keep gravel from naturally washing downstream, so - as part of a large project - 6,000 tons of gravel were added to the river bed to provide a better habitat for spawning chinook salmon. Recently, low water levels have left some of the salmon nesting areas (called redds) have been left high and dry. Today, biologists surveyed the American River to try to learn how many salmon eggs have been killed by low water levels. They sampled salmon redds (nests) for water quality, and the permeability of the river bed.

  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologist Craig Anderson, left, fisheries biologist Bill Beckett, center, and state Department of Fish and Wildlife scientific aide Shawn Cox test the gravel bed of the American River near River Bend Park in Rancho Cordova on Friday as part of an effort to learn how many salmon eggs have been killed by low water levels in the drought-shrunken waterway.

In severe drought plan, California salmon may be moved by truck

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 11, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 24, 2014 - 6:03 pm

Starting next month, millions of young California salmon could be migrating to the ocean in tanker trucks instead of swimming downstream in the Sacramento River.

On Monday, state and federal wildlife officials announced a plan to move hatchery-raised salmon by truck in the event the state’s ongoing drought makes the Sacramento River and its tributaries inhospitable for the fish. They fear the rivers could become too shallow and warm to sustain salmon trying to migrate to sea on their own.

Shrunken habitat could deplete food supply for the young fish, and make them easier prey for predators. It also would make the water warmer, which can be lethal to salmon.

“The conditions may be so poor as to produce unacceptable levels of mortality for the out-migrating juveniles,” said Bob Clarke, fisheries program supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Clarke’s agency operates Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River near Red Bluff. It is the largest salmon hatchery in the state, producing about 12 million fall-run Chinook salmon. The hatchery was built to atone for habitat losses caused by construction of Shasta Dam.

Coleman hatchery salmon are usually released into Battle Creek in April and May. Fishery experts prefer to release young fish into rivers so they imprint on the location as “home” and are better able to migrate back from the ocean for spawning three to four years later.

Fall-run Chinook salmon from the Sacramento River and its tributaries compose the bulk of the wild-caught salmon available in California markets and restaurants, and also feed a lucrative sport-fishing industry. In total, these fish represent a multibillion-dollar slice of the state’s economy each year.

California is experiencing one of its driest winters on record. Despite the recent storms, the Sierra snowpack that the state relies on to replenish its reservoirs remains depleted. Without an unusually wet March – and the long-term forecast calls for predominantly dry weather – officials fear rivers may be so diminished in April and May that young salmon will not survive their migration to the ocean.

They are also concerned that water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during a low-water year could slaughter many of these young salmon, which measure about 6 inches long. Water pumped out of the Delta by state and federal agencies serves 25 million people from Napa to San Diego.

The trucking plan, devised by the state and federal fisheries agencies, includes a series of triggers, based on river and water supply conditions, that would launch a massive operation to haul the salmon in tanker trucks on a nearly three-hour drive from Red Bluff to San Pablo Bay near Vallejo. There, the salmon would be released into floating net pens to acclimate to new salinity and temperature conditions, then set free to swim for the ocean.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is adopting similar plans for its hatcheries on the Feather, American and Mokelumne rivers. Each produces several million young salmon every year.

Historically, the state hatcheries have trucked a significant share of their salmon, even in normal water years, to protect them from pollution, predators and water diversions. More recently, the state began shifting some salmon to in-river releases following evidence that trucked fish are more prone to “stray” into the wrong river when they return to spawn as adults. This harms the unique genetic traits of each river’s salmon species.

The department is in the midst of a multiyear study to evaluate the effectiveness of trucking versus in-river releases on salmon survival and migration. It also includes use of a barge to transport hatchery salmon. Aboard the barge, salmon are protected from predators and water diversions but experience the gradual changes in water temperature and chemistry that occur with a self-powered migration.

With trucking, by comparison, the salmon experience a kind of shock when suddenly released into the bay, which can make them more vulnerable to predators.

This year’s salmon trucking plan is similar to one carried out in the drought of 1991-92. Officials view it as a one-time program to protect salmon during severe drought, not a change in hatchery policy. They’re prepared to scrap the plan if the coming weeks bring significant rain.

“We don’t want to truck them down if conditions aren’t going to be as bad as we think they’re going to be,” Clarke said.

Officials developed the plan in consultation with the fishing industry, which has been pressing for the trucking plan for weeks.

“What this means is we’ll likely have a much better salmon fishing season in 2016, when these fish reach adulthood, than we would have otherwise gotten,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.


Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

Read more articles by Matt Weiser



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