Dry rivers force California to truck baby salmon to the Pacific

Josue Torres

Since forecast river patterns suggest that the rivers the fish use to migrate downstream would be traditionally poor and warm due to rising drought, California officials would truck millions of young salmon produced at fish hatcheries in the Central Valley agricultural area to the Pacific Ocean.

According to officials, the vast trucking operation is designed to ensure “the best degree of protection for the young salmon on their perilous voyage to the Pacific Ocean.”

Photo by Brandon.Unsplash

The groundbreaking trucking plan, launched in reaction to the state’s worsening drought, aims to optimize the survival of hatchery fish that support California’s fall-run of chinook salmon, which is the state’s commercial and recreational salmon industries.

Convoys of tanker ships, according to officials in control of the five main inland hatcheries that rear the trout, are the only way to guarantee the 3-inch smolts make it to shore. For the trout, the rivers are either too low or too warm — or both.

Following a winter of no snow, California is currently in its second year of drought. According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the state’s fourth-driest year on record, especially in the northern two-thirds of the state.

Record low reservoir levels prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a regional drought emergency for the Russian River basin in Sonoma and Mendocino counties last week, highlighting the state’s drought danger.

More than 16.8 million young salmon would be trucked from four Central Valley hatcheries to coastal locations in the San Pablo, San Francisco, Half Moon, and Monterey bays.

So far, the crisis is not almost as bad as it was during the previous decade’s famine when the majority of hatchery fish were trucked to sea. This year, hatchery managers were able to release the remainder of their juveniles upriver until river levels were too dangerous to continue.

According to state officials, 16.8 million fish would need to be trucked from the four state-run hatcheries by the beginning of June, which is around 20% higher than in a typical year. Every year, some trucking is undertaken to maximize the chances of survival. State hatcheries can be found around the Feather, American, Mokelumne, and Merced rivers.

It would take approximately 146 truckloads to ship the tuna.

From a single hatchery, federal authorities would do the same.

California’s famed native chinook salmon need cold water to thrive, but dams have prevented their ancient migrations to the frozen upper reaches of Northern California’s Sacramento River tributaries.

When transporting fish to a new release location, there is a possibility that they may not make their way back to their spawning grounds.

“We perceived a prospective drought ahead of time and worked to prepare so we didn’t have to truck (many) fish,” said Bob Clarke, fisheries program supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “We were out in front.”

The salmon community and Central Valley farmers are often at odds for the same river water in order to protect their livelihoods, with fish advocates advocating for higher water levels and farmers opposing them in order to draw water to irrigate crops.

The state started shipping fish to coastal sites last week, and federal officials intend to accompany them beginning soon, when smolts will be trucked to Point San Quentin in Marin County for release.

The Golden State Salmon Assn. chief, John McManus, assured that he appreciates the extra effort being made to save the fall-run chinook despite the drought.

However, he claims that the root issue for salmon is that state and federal water authorities have authorized much too much water to be drawn from rivers and creeks for agricultural irrigation.

“These river conditions are made worse by decisions that put salmon last,” he stated.

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