Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fall Salmon Counts Improve on Central Valley Rivers

The numbers of fall run chinook salmon returning to spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries to date are significantly better than the record low returns of last year, although the numbers are well below the banner run of 2002 when nearly 800,000 fish returned to the system.

Last year only 39,530 fall chinooks returned to Central Valley rivers. Fishing was closed in the Sacramento and tributaries in 2008 and 2009, with the exception of targeted season for late fall chinooks on the Sacramento, due to the unprecedented fishery collapse.

However, a pre-season estimate of 245,000 fish by the National Marine Fisheries Service spurred the state and federal government fishery agencies to allow limited recreational fishing for fall chinooks on the Feather, American and Sacramento rivers this year, as well as restricted recreational and commercial ocean salmon seasons.

Fishermen, environmentalists and independent scientists pointed to water exports out of the California Delta, declining water quality and poor freshwater management as the key factors behind the collapse. On the other hand, state and federal government representatives repeatedly claimed that poor ocean conditions were the likely culprit, although they admitted that other factors played a role as well.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek is seeing a much better run this fall, well over twice of last year’s dismal return.

“We’re past the three-quarter mark in the run and we estimate 22,000 fish have returned to date, including 11,000 adults and 11,000 jacks, between the hatchery and the river,” said Brett Galtean, assistant hatchery manager. “Last year we had 9,000 total salmon including 719 jacks (two-year-old fish). The surprising number of jacks gives us hope for a really good year next fall.”

So far the hatchery has taken 14,250,000 eggs. “We target taking 14,000,000 to 15,000,000 eggs annually, but we will continue to spawn fish into this month,” explained Scott Hamelburg, hatchery manager. “As long as the fish keep coming, we will continue to take fish to get full genetic representation of the entire run.”
The Feather River hatchery is also seeing much better salmon numbers than last year. The total adult salmon count to date is 14,523 adults compared to 5367 last year, reported A.J. Dill, assistant hatchery manager. The two-year-old (jack and jill) count to date is 2417 fish, compared to 3429 last fall.

The Mokelumne River salmon run is also much better than last year’s dismal run. The 4,070 fish counted to date at Woodbridge Dam are already about twice as many as were counted last year.

The Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery as of November 4 has trapped 1,267 salmon, including 614 adults and 653 jacks. Last year the facility to date received 341 fish, including 167 adults and 174 jacks.

Although the run is nothing like the run of 2005, when the hatchery trapped 8,219 salmon, the salmon population is definitely on the upswing.

“We’re happy – the run is headed back in the right direction,” said Will Smith, hatchery manager. “We will probably meet our mitigation goal of 3.4 million salmon smolts (juveniles), but we are unlikely to meet our enhancement goal totaling 5.4 million fish.”

Smith attributes the increased salmon run to the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s release of pulse flows up to 2400 cfs below Camanche Dam in October to attract the fish upriver to the hatchery, rather than going up the American and other rivers. He said that the two day closure of the gates of the Delta Cross Channel, a canal that connects the Mokelumne River with the Sacramento River, also help reduced straying.

Bob Burks, Nimbus Fish Hatchery manager, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the run size on the American River will meet expectations and more than enough salmon will be available for spawning and angling.

“We opened the fish ladder on November 1 and spawned our first batch of fish on November 2,” said Burks. “DFG staffer Paula Hoover did an aerial survey of the river and saw a few ribbons of fish holding downriver, although the majority of fish can be found between Sunrise and the hatchery.”

Over the next few months, Nimbus Hatchery staff plan to spawn between 5,000 and 7,000 adult salmon, taking up to eight million eggs. The hatchery traditionally releases four million young Chinook salmon (smolts) each spring.

“It is encouraging to see the both the adult and jack salmon counts increase this year, but the Central Valley salmon fishery is still in a state of disaster,” said Dick Pool, coordinator of Water 4 Fish, an organization working to restore salmon and other fish populations. “Until the run reaches 200,000 fish again, the fishery will continue to hang on the brink of survival.”

Pool noted that he was disappointed that the Bureau of Reclamation has failed to heed the advice of fishing and environmental groups and Members of Congress to close the Delta Cross Channel gates for 14 days starting October 4. When the gates are open, chinook salmon stray into the Sacramento system rather than going up the Mokelumne and other rivers of their birth.

Pool also said that although the ocean survival of salmon has increased because of improved forage and water conditions, the many problems that fall run and other Central Valley chinook populations face because of Delta water exports and poor freshwater management still remain to be addressed.

Anglers and biologists are hopeful that the Sacramento River fall run chinook spawning escapement will meet its conservation goal of 180,000 fish this year, an indication that the run is on its way to recovery from the record low years of 2007, 2008 and 2009.

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-Dan Bacher

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