Management of California’s river water is a balancing act that’s often described as fish versus farmers. With dams blocking more than 90 percent of the salmon’s original river habitat, agencies have struggled in the drought to release enough water at the right times to suit the needs of both crops and wildlife in the San Francisco Bay-Delta complex, the West Coast’s largest estuary.
Because the salmon grow, spawn and die in three-year cycles, the troubles of 2014 and 2015 made it “critical that everything go well this year” for winter-run salmon in particular, said Jason Roberts, a fisheries supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
So far, Chinook appear for now to have caught the critical break they needed, thanks to rain and snow from El Nino-related storms this past winter.
Chinook salmon are an anchor species in California, not just for the state’s estimated $1.4 billion commercial and sport fishing salmon industry, but for the health of land, river and ocean habitats. Because salmon divide their lives between the ocean and rivers, they provide food for animals ranging from orcas to bears and eagles. Once the fish die upstream, their decomposing bodies supply nitrogen that helps sustain forests.