The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have agreed on a temporary contingency plan for the release of hatchery smolts in 2014 due to drought.
The goal of the contingency plan outlined today is to ensure the greatest survival of Chinook salmon smolts released from hatcheries managed by CDFW and the USFWS under current drought conditions. The plan includes thresholds for trucking all or part of Sacramento River Basin salmon smolts to selected net pen locations downstream of the Delta.
“While we know that our hatchery systems in California need ultimately to move away from trucking to reduce the adverse biological effects that trucking causes, this drought and what we are predicting for in-river conditions in the next few months for out-migrating fish requires us to consider exceptions to the preferred approach,” said Dan Castleberry, Assistant Regional Director for the USFWS.
This decision and the contingency plan are informed by lengthy and collaborative discussions with leaders in the California commercial fishing industry.
After these discussions and input from NMFS, CDFW and USFWS this approach was pursued because of the exceptional circumstances created by the current drought in the state, and the risks of those circumstances to salmon and the commercial salmon fishing industry.
California is facing an extreme drought. These extreme drought conditions are forcing these agencies to consider actions to preserve the future of salmon fishing in California.
“It is important to recognize two things: first, our decision to adapt fast to drought and truck fish this year should not be used to argue against long-term reform of our hatcheries,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “Second, the state and federal agencies care greatly about this state’s salmon and the fishing industry. We need to take these adaptive approaches given the severity of this drought.”
Trucking all or part of the fall-run Chinook is only being considered as a one-time action at this time. But for the drought, agencies have been striving to increase smolt releases into the rivers where the hatcheries operate to allow for the more natural migration of anadromous fish.
Salmon return to their spawning grounds using their sense of smell. The process, called imprinting, begins before birth as waters flow over the eggs and continues as they grow and make their way to the ocean.
Each segment of water on their journey has distinctive chemical cues, which they can re-trace to their spawning grounds.
“We have been working closely with our partners at USFWS and CDFW in reviewing their efforts for transporting hatchery production of salmon smolts to the ocean during this severe drought year,” said Will Stelle, NMFS West Coast Regional Administrator. “We strongly support these efforts and share in the commitment for long-term reform of hatchery practices that impact wild salmon stocks.”
This contingency plan is designed to ensure the most smolts reach the ocean taking into account the drought.
Trucking of smolts from CDFW’s Sacramento basin hatcheries is regarded as the best management option at this time based on projected water flows and conditions during the outmigration of smolts.
Up to 18.4 million Sacramento fall-run Chinook smolts will be evaluated for potential trucking during April, May and June 2014.
CDFW will continue the important barge study, which keeps protected smolts in recirculating water as they are taken downstream so they pick up the chemical cues, in hopes to improve the survival rate of migrating salmon.
Consultation and coordination will continue over the coming weeks between CDFW, USFWS and NMFS to fine-tune and implement this plan. Should drought conditions change, all parties will quickly re-evaluate and possibly reverse this action.
Sacramento fall-run Chinook salmon are the primary driver of ocean commercial and recreational fisheries. Trucking of smolts from inland hatcheries to net pen sites at Jersey Point and San Pablo Bay helps minimize in-river losses to unsuitable water quality conditions, predation and entrainment due to during drought conditions.
In the fall of 2013, 444,000 Chinook adult salmon returned to the Central Valley to spawn. Most spawned in natural areas now being impacted by drought. The deterioration of river conditions will affect the survival of their off-spring.
Klamath Basin fall run Chinook salmon raised at two state operated hatcheries are not expected to need out migration assistance at this time. At Iron Gate Hatchery, on the Klamath River, a release plan includes alternate release site use downstream as identified in the hatchery genetic management plan.
“We are pleased the USFWS, CDFW and NMFS have spent so much time trying to help solve this problem with us,” said Zeke Grader, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Salmon is a serious business in California.”