Salmon crowded in and around the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery on Thursday, offering leaping and squiggling proof of what so far is a near-record return of the big pinkish delicacies after several years of low breeding numbers.
Schoolchildren watched as the fall-run chinook squirmed on conveyor belts into the “egg take” building, where, with help from about a dozen hatchery workers, they engaged in the decidedly unromantic process of spawning the next generation.
“It’s going to be one of the top three or four years that we’ve seen since 1940,” said Jose Setka, the manager of fisheries and wildlife for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies Mokelumne River water to 1.4 million East Bay customers. “We are getting more of our fish back where they belong.”
The large number of salmon, which are inspired by the first rains of the season to swim upriver and spawn, validate the effectiveness of a series of streambed, habitat and health improvements made over the years by the utility and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As of Thursday, 13,799 chinook, each weighing as much as 31 pounds, had fought their way from the ocean up the Mokelumne into the Clements facility, compared with 4,129 at this time last year. With about a month left in the season, the record of 18,000 salmon, set in 2011, is within reach.
Steelhead numbers are also way up for the second consecutive year, with more than 350 fish having returned to the hatchery — and it is still early season for the wild cousins of rainbow trout, which usually spawn through early March. Last year, a record 600 steelhead returned.
“Before last year a good year would be about 100 steelhead, but we had over 600 last year, and we’re on track to beat that this year,” said Ed Rible, a fisheries biologist for the utility district.