Thousands of salmon make the grueling journey from the Pacific Ocean up the American River each fall. The spawning run ends for many with a whack on the head at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, where salmon eggs are gathered and fertilized.
The salmon would normally die a slow death after spawning. But at Nimbus, they’re quickly dispatched in a process viewed annually by hundreds of children and adults through big glass windows at the hatchery in Gold River.
What becomes of the dead salmon is less well known. While the ending isn’t happy for the adult fish, their offspring repopulate the oceans, and tens of thousands of pounds of salmon fillets feed hungry families in northern and central California during the winter months.
“We start at the Oregon border and give it back to food banks and to traditional Indian areas where salmon would have been taken,” said John Healey, head of California Emergency Foodlink, the nonprofit that organizes the collection and distribution of salmon from the state’s hatcheries. “We go as far south as we can. Some years there’s enough to do a distribution down to Fresno.”
The fishes’ trip to the dinner table starts in the cold coastal waters, where they spend three to four years feeding and fattening up in the open ocean. Then each fall, they swim to their birthplaces, the freshwater rivers and streams where they hatched.
The salmon use scents and other cues to make their way under the Golden Gate Bridge, across the San Francisco Bay and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They travel north against the current of the Sacramento River and hang a right near downtown Sacramento to swim upstream in the American River.
At Nimbus, a hatchery was established to make up for the spawning habitat lost from the construction of Nimbus Dam, completed in 1955 just upstream from the hatchery.
Before reaching the dam, the fish swim up a long fish ladder to the hatchery, where groups of salmon are sorted and killed with orange hammers and blades. Hatchery workers remove their eggs and milt (semen) and mix the two together to make millions of new salmon.
In the spring, the hatchlings are put back into the river to start the long trip downstream to the ocean.
In the meantime, the adult salmon carcasses are hauled away by freezer trucks to a processing plant in Washington state. Fish fit for human consumption gets filleted, vacuum sealed and returned to California.
Distribution takes place in January and February, starting in the state’s far north and eventually reaching Sacramento, where 20,000 to 30,000 pounds are given to area food banks, Healey said.
The fish that come from Nimbus are mostly Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon for their large size. The salmon at the hatchery tend to be about 2 to 3 feet long and weigh around 20 pounds, though they can grow much larger.
At the market, wild king salmon can run upwards of $20 per pound, but Healey said the fish distributed to food banks are of a lesser quality, though still edible.
“They’re not the bright pink salmon,” he said. “They’re gray and pretty beat up. It’s not pristine. It’s in a stressed condition.”
That’s because salmon stop eating and start using up their fat stores once they leave the ocean and enter fresh water, said Laura Drath, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife employee who oversees visitor services at the Nimbus hatchery, including school group tours.
On Wednesday, dozens of children pressed their noses against the glass of the viewing area and watched as salmon were corralled into a pen, shocked with electricity to stun them and sorted into male and female processing areas.
Workers wearing raincoats hit each male on the head several times with orange hammers before squeezing out the milt and tossing the fish into large bins. The females were killed and sliced open to reveal body cavities filled with masses of glistening orange eggs.
The eggs were scooped into pans and mixed with milt and water, before being placed into incubation containers in which flowing freshwater mimics the gravelly stream beds where salmon naturally spawn.
The whole process is on public display. Adults tend to be more bothered by it than children, Drath said.
“Generally if you explain that it’s the natural end of their life cycle ... and the meat will go to a good cause, then they’re OK with it,” she said.
Several children described the process as “cool” but “gross.”
Vittie and Bill Hutcherson, of Gold River, brought their three grandchildren to see the spawning, having talked with them before about it.
Brady Donlon, 9, was somewhat apprehensive.
After seeing the process, he said, “It was disgusting but had to be done.”
Was he bothered by it?
“I was disturbed,” he said. “If they were filming it, it would probably be a horror movie.”
Workers at the hatchery said killing the fish was part of the normal life cycle. The same workers who hit the salmon with hammers also make sure the eggs survive to produce more salmon. Some are avid anglers and enjoy eating fish.
Jay Rowan, an environmental scientist with the state’s fish and wildlife department, said it’s good to know that the salmon that die at Nimbus are going to organizations that distribute food to needy families.
“It’s a beneficial relationship we have with them,” Rowan said. “They get food for folks who need it. We get rid of thousands of pounds of fish.”