Biologists are capitalizing on a unique opportunity this year to “jump start” the recovery of Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon, one of the nation’s most critically endangered species.
These fish were once a thriving population running in the thousands every year from the Pacific Ocean, up the Sacramento River for hundreds of miles to cool, snow-fed streams like the Little Sacramento, McCloud and Pit Rivers, and Battle Creek.
Since the building of dams and other river impediments, the abundance of winter-run has plummeted and now the single remaining population spawns only in the Lower Sacramento River below Keswick Dam. That spawning location is far below their historic habitat in a section of river exposed to summer heat, where their survival depends on temperatures artificially controlled by cold-water releases from Shasta Dam.
Today, Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon are listed as an endangered species under both federal and state law and were named one of NOAA Fisheries’ eight “Species in the Spotlight,” meaning they are among the nation’s most at-risk species of facing extinction and are in need of focused attention.
Fortunately, the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery below Shasta Dam has kept the salmon from going extinct by augmenting the wild population with offspring from the hatchery’s conservation supplementation program.
This year, not all of the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon from this program were required to supplement the natural spawning population below Keswick Dam. So they will instead be reintroduced into the North Fork of Battle Creek, where they once thrived. Recovery managers hope the 200,000 juvenile fish will expand the current range of the fish and help in its recovery.
“This is our attempt to ‘jump start’ the recovery of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon by expanding their range into a watershed that has undergone substantial habitat restoration over the past several years,” said Maria Rea, Assistant Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Central Valley Office. “We have been preparing a comprehensive plan for reintroduction of these fish, and we are excited that this opportunity to use the 2014 cohort of captive brood stock allows us to begin implementation this year.”
North Fork Battle Creek is historic habitat for Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners have improved habitat in the creek as part of a long-term restoration project for salmon and steelhead. Since 1999, the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project has spent over $100 million to restore approximately 48 miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat. Crews will release the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon into North Fork Battle Creek in groups throughout March and April.
In August, after the fish hatched at the Livingston Stone Hatchery, they were immediately trucked to the Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Battle Creek so the juveniles could imprint on the smell of the waterway in preparation for their return migration in 2020.
All of the juvenile salmon will be tagged and fin clipped prior to release, allowing fish biologists to track their survival, growth and ocean distribution, as well as to detect them when they return to Battle Creek.
The successful release of these fish is the culmination of many years of planning, cooperation, and tremendous efforts in rearing the fish and in restoring their habitat. It’s also an incredible milestone toward the recovery of endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon.
“Maintaining these critically endangered fish outside of their historic range and below Shasta dam is not a sustainable strategy, especially considering the likelihood of more drought years,” said Rea. “We must work together to reintroduce these salmon to their historic habitat in Battle Creek and the McCloud River, if we are to recover them for future generations.”