Drought-impoverished rivers force salmon hatcheries to truck fish to the Pacific

Millions of young salmon raised in fish hatcheries in the Central Valley will be trucked to San Francisco Bay and other coastal sites for release, as the rivers they normally used to get to the ocean are drying up, state and federal officials said on Wednesday.

The ambitious trucking program, a response to the state’s growing drought, aims to maximize the survival of the hatchery fish that are supporting the fall of the Chinook in California – the mainstay of the state’s commercial and recreational salmon industries .

Officials from the top five inland hatcheries that raise fish say tanker convoys are the only way to ensure 3-inch smolts get to the sea. Rivers are either too low or too hot for them. fish – or both.

“Trucking young salmon to downstream release sites has proven to be one of the best ways to increase ocean survival in dry weather,” said Jason Julienne, Hatchery Supervisor at the north central region for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Chinooks normally start their lives upstream and then swim to the Pacific, where they stay for three years before returning to their birthplace to spawn. An accident in just one year on the number of juveniles can have lasting effects on the total salmon population.

To date, the situation is not as bad as during the drought of the past decade, when the bulk of hatchery fish were transported to sea by truck. This year, hatcheries were able to release the majority of their juveniles upstream before judging the river conditions too risky to continue.

State officials estimate that 16.8 million fish will need to be trucked from the four public hatcheries until early June, about 20% more than a normal year. Some trucking is done each year to increase the odds of survival. State hatcheries are located along the Feather, American, Mokelumne, and Merced rivers.

Federal officials, who run the Coleman National Hatchery along a tributary of the Sacramento River in Shasta County, normally do not transport any salmon, but this year will send about 950,000 fish. That’s less than 10% of their total.

The risk of moving the fish to a different release point is that they will not find their way back to their spawning grounds.

“We saw a potential drought ahead of time and worked to prepare so that we didn’t have to truck (a lot) of fish,” said Bob Clarke, fishery program supervisor for the southwest region. Pacific Ocean Fish and Wildlife Service. “We were in front.”

The state began hauling fish to coastal sites last week and federal officials plan to join them from Monday, when the smolts are expected to be trucked to Point San Quentin in Marin County to be released.

John McManus, president of the Golden State Salmon Association, which advocates for fishermen, said he appreciated the extra effort to save the fall chinook amid the drought. However, he says the underlying problem for salmon is that state and federal water officials have allowed too much water to be taken from rivers and streams in the first place.

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

Kurtis Alexander is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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