Saturday, November 13, 2010

Salmon Make a Comeback in Central Valley Rivers by Matt Weiser of Sacbee Nov. 13, 2010

Salmon Make a Comeback in Central
Valley Rivers
Published Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010
Salmon are returning to Central Valley rivers and streams in impressive numbers this fall,
restoring hope that years of shortages and fishing closures are over.
It's a dramatic turnaround from last year, when the Central Valley fall chinook salmon run
hit a historic low. Scientists blamed poor ocean conditions and a century of habitat
degradation in freshwater spawning areas.
It got so bad that federal officials closed commercial fishing in 2008 and 2009, taking
California salmon off dinner menus for the first time ever.
Now the fish are surging back. The numbers are not nearly as robust as in decades past. But
ocean conditions have improved, and myriad small habitat projects are starting to bear fruit.
Bryon Harris, 26, saw the results. He was walking along Auburn Ravine in Lincoln recently
with a friend. The stream runs through Placer County before emptying into the Sacramento
River via the Natomas Cross Canal.
"We hear this flopping and it sounded like the rocks were crashing," said Harris. "We look
over and there's a big old salmon right there … and there's a few more trapped in there,
trying to make it. It was jaw-dropping, almost."
The salmon made it that far because this is the first year in decades that a number of small,
seasonal diversion dams have been removed from the stream. As a result, 3-foot salmon
have been seen thrashing upstream behind mini-malls and housing tracts in suburban
The volunteer group Save Auburn Ravine Salmon and Steelhead persuaded landowners –
with a nudge from law enforcement – to remove the irrigation dams. Federal law requires
removal between Oct. 15 and April 15 so salmon can pass. But before they were reminded
this year, many owners either didn't know or forgot.
"I've fished the Auburn Ravine for 10 years at least, and I've never seen a salmon in there,
ever," said Harris. "I was shocked."
The Central Valley's major salmon hatcheries are reporting big increases in spawning fish
compared with last year. This includes hatcheries on Battle Creek and the Feather River,
among the biggest contributors to the population.
"We're very pleased with the run," said Brett Galyean, deputy manager at Coleman National
Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's just been
a good year."
Salmon make a comeback in Central Valley rivers - Sacramento Sports - Kings, 49ers, Ra... Page 1 of 3 11/13/2010
The Shasta County hatchery, the Central Valley's biggest producer, has spawned about
16,000 chinook so far. That compares with about 6,500 last year.
The Feather River hatchery in Butte County, operated by the California Department of Fish
and Game, had spawned about 2,600 salmon as of Nov. 6. That is about double last year's
count at the same time.
The Mokelumne River hatchery, a smaller producer in San Joaquin County, had spawned just
over 700 fish as of the same date, or five times more than in 2009.
Nimbus Hatchery on the American River opened just two weeks ago and doesn't have
comparative results yet.
"The run to date is encouraging," said Doug Demko, president and biologist at FISHBIO, a
consulting firm based in Oakdale that monitors the run. "We've seen improvements in ocean
conditions the last few years, so we expect next year we're going to see even more fish
Scientists studying the salmon crash that began in 2007 placed blame largely on poor ocean
health. Salmon in the ocean that year found little to eat, and many died.
The problem was a shift in a Pacific upwelling current that normally drives deep water to the
surface, fertilizing a crop of tiny zooplankton at the base of the food chain.
That upwelling current is back, visible in the abundance of whales and dolphins that tourists
enjoyed off the Monterey coast this summer.
Scientists say poor freshwater habitat and inadequate flows also contributed to the salmon
crash. This, plus the abundance of homogenized hatchery fish, created a weak population
vulnerable to ocean changes.
Federal officials last year imposed new rules to improve water flows on rivers and in the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Efforts are also under way to restore creeks that are still
good habitat, but have not seen big salmon numbers in many years.
These small waterways include not only Auburn Ravine but also Dry Creek, which flows
through Roseville and North Sacramento and empties into the American River near Natomas.
The creek saw hundreds of spawning salmon in past years before their numbers plunged
with the rest of the region. Now it seems to be rebounding.
"We're hopeful," said Gregg Bates of the Dry Creek Conservancy, which coordinated a
volunteer salmon survey on Friday. "It doesn't look to me like we're going to reach the
numbers we had four years ago. But if we saw 50 to 100, that would be pretty exciting."
The salmon that Bryon Harris saw in Auburn Ravine was halted by the Lincoln Gauging
Station, an antiquated flow-measuring device that blocks the flow like a dam.
His friend, Carlos Hernandez, jumped into the creek and managed to grab one of the
exhausted salmon. He lifted it over the small dam, and it swam on.
"It's sad to see those fish get stuck right there," Harris said. "The fish was big, man. It was
bigger than a skateboard. It really opened my eyes."
The Nevada Irrigation District owns the gauging station and plans to begin modifications
next year so salmon can pass, said General Manager Ron Nelson. Then it plans the same at
Hemphill Dam, a larger structure upstream.
"It's pretty cool to be hearing about the possibility of fish being up there," said Nelson.
"We're kind of jazzed about that. This is a good deal, I think, for everybody."

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